It's a Desert Out There | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

It's a Desert Out There

The child care shortage in Central Oregon worsens amidst pandemic

Sarah Bystrom is a sales director and working mother of a family of four in Bend. She and her husband are raising two boys—one 3 years old and another age 20-months. On a workday, Bystrom leaves the house at 7:20 am to drop her youngest son at his daycare in northwest Bend and her older son at preschool in northeast Bend. She then starts work at 8:10. At noon, she picks up her older son from preschool. Once home, he ideally takes a nap, and then at 3 pm she picks up her younger son.

"It's a lot of travel," Bystrom said. She says she feels lucky that both she and her husband work for companies that "recognize the parent struggle right now."

It's a Desert Out There
Courtesy Steffany Cooley Photography
Like many working families with kids, the Bystroms live busy lives—dropoffs, pickups, naps… and working from home.

When the family moved here a few years ago, Bend was already a child care desert. According to a 2019 Oregon State University study, families with children under the age of 3 in every county in Oregon live in a child care desert. Less than a quarter of Oregon's children 5 and under have access to a regulated child care—12% of infants and toddlers and 29% of preschool-age children.

In Bend, there's one opening for every three or more children who need one. In November 2019, regional businesses, early learning and health organizations and the Bend Chamber hired a Central Oregon childcare accelerator to try to address the issue. However, the position was disbanded earlier this year due to changing priorities and a lack of funding once the pandemic hit.

Based on data from NeighborImpact, Ben Hemson, the City of Bend's business advocate in the Department of Economic Development, estimates that available child care slots declined this year from about 5,000 before the pandemic to about 1,600.

To try to help new programs open, the Bend City Council voted unanimously on Dec. 2 to fully exempt child care providers from transportation system development charges through December 2022. SDCs are fees assessed to offset the impact that new or expanding development has on public infrastructure. (Previously providers received a 70% exemption.) The Council also relaxed some zoning regulations to make finding suitable buildings easier, and City staffers are in conversation with a few large employers about establishing child care centers.

"We have this process where we try to grab a child care provider when they start trying to permit their center, and we walk them through the process," Hemson said.

Earlier this year, the City allocated $650,000 in CARES Act funding received in March to help struggling child care providers weather the pandemic, tapping NeighborImpact to distribute the funds. Along with tuition assistance programs, NeighborImpact provides business coaching, training in early education and technical assistance to current child care providers. Like City staff, it also coaches potential new providers through the application process.

Denise Hudson, NeighborImpact's child care resources coordinating specialist, spearheaded the effort to disperse the CARES Act funding.

"We were able to give grants out to 103 providers in Deschutes County," Hudson explains. "And there were four focus points as far as applying for money."

The focus points provided funding to cover increased operational costs (like personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and additional classroom supplies), costs of opening classes for school-aged children without care due to school closure, costs of opening weekends and evening programs and lost income from decreased attendance, like when the schools closed in March.

"We also did a few startup grants for a few programs that had already reached out to us," Karen Prow, the nonprofit's child care resources director, said. "They wanted to work with us on Baby Promise, which is another program that we do here at NeighborImpact."

Baby Promise funds child care for up to 109 children at multiple providers in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties and Warm Springs. NeighborImpact also partners with Early Learning Hub of Central Oregon to provide business coaching to Baby Promise providers.

Potential Long-Term Solutions

Early Learning Hub of Central Oregon and NeighborImpact want to address staffing and business challenges for child care providers. For example, along with developing substitute-teacher pools like K-12 has, regional ELH Director Brenda Comini said they're looking into "micro-center models" for managing administrative tasks. Under the model, a main provider would oversee much of the administrative tasks, like paperwork, finding substitute teachers, ordering supplies and meals and maintaining licensing. Actual child care services would happen in smaller centers located throughout the service area—potentially carved out of spaces in larger buildings, like churches, community centers or office buildings, she said.

Comini says ELH is also looking to expand the supply of good teachers through Partners in Practice, a partnership with NeighborImpact and Central Oregon Community College.

"Providers can go to school and get certificates and move toward associate degrees and beyond in early care and education with tuition and books paid," Comini said. The classes cater to current workers and occur during nontraditional hours.

About The Author

Ashley Moreno

Ashley is an amateur cook, trained chemist and aspiring forest hag. Until she can move into a small hut in the woods with her chihuahua, Grendel, she passes her time playing board games and watching movies. She loves all things crafty, from brewing beer to crocheting amigurumi. She joined the Source in 2020.
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