Katy Brooks

Bend Chamber of Commerce CEO Katy Brooks

Finding an opening for your child at a local child care center was a big problem before COVID-19. Before March, there was an available slot for about 1 in every 3 children under the age of 5 in Central Oregon. The wait list for infants entering child care could be more than a year. That was before the coronavirus. Wait times will be much worse now.

The economic margins for child care facilities are so slim that many providers went out of business within weeks of having to close their doors. The cost of rent, food, labor and other operating expenses involved in providing quality care for infants and children under 5 makes it close to impossible to make ends meet, even when the economy is good.

It’s estimated that about half the child care facilities in Oregon will not reopen as we emerge from the Stay Home, Save Lives era.

Many child care providers attempted to find gap funding from federal programs during the stay-home order, but found that banks were unwilling to process their loan due to the high-risk/low-margin nature of their business. Recognizing this, Congress established a fund to provide grants to help boost up the struggling child care industry. Oregon received these funds, but has been slow in releasing the money to child care facilities. As a result, some facilities have closed because of the delay in the distribution of the federal funds by the state .

Oregon also provided financial assistance to ensure members of the health care and emergency workers sector had child care while they did the hard work of caring for those who were sick during the COVID-19 stay-home order. But many families made the decision to keep their children home, and providers who were expecting to care for children of health workers ended up with very few.

Last week the state announced another $44 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to support child care providers. This money should make it to child care providers quickly to prevent more facilities from closing.

As we enter Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan and businesses reopen, there will be a drastic lack of available child care that will keep many employees from being able to go back to work.

We cannot put all the blame on the fallout of COVID-19. The economics of child care was weak before the pandemic hit. Child care needs economic assistance to work. Much like our K-12 system, there needs to be some sort of subsidization to care for and educate our children in their earliest years.

It’s time to rethink how we can ensure there is quality child care at a price we can all afford. If necessity is the mother of invention, the coronavirus is our opportunity to innovate. We can start by directing some of the pass-through funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to pilot new models that deliver high-quality care to diverse geographic and demographic communities.

There are ideas already working in other places across the country that are worth exploring. Oregon’s task force on child care is wrestling these issues right now and has the opportunity to recommend funding and advancing new ideas that may get us closer to an economically viable, high-quality child care system.

An example of a model worth exploring is a “micro-center” network, which could be piloted to house multiple, one-classroom child care ‘centers’ located in existing schools, hospitals, office buildings, community center, etc. Ideally, space and other costs are donated by the school or private sector sponsor, keeping startup and overhead costs to a minimum. This model lowers administrative and overhead costs, helps ensure consistent quality and can be deployed throughout a variety of venues across the region. This model can also be used to organize and assist providers who care for children in their homes.

Another idea is a shared services model that pools resources and services for a group of child care providers to reduce individual costs. It can include a centralized service to share payroll, bookkeeping, supplies, food, staffing and more, decreasing the cost to individual providers.

Coupling affordable housing projects with child care to address two issues on one property is also a model we should be using more often. And many employers are interested in looking for ways to help support child care to retain their employees.

COVID-19 gives us no other choice but to invest and innovate in new ways to make child care more sustainable. It’s time to fix our child care shortage for good.

Katy Brooks is the Bend Chamber of Commerce CEO. Her vision for the chamber is to catalyze an environment where businesses, their employees and the community thrive.

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