Central Oregon’s dire shortage of child care openings has reached crisis proportions. As far back as 2017, child care operators had waiting lists hundreds of names long. A new report shows conditions worsened across the state during the pandemic, with our region designated a child care “desert.” The shortage’s effect on our community stretches beyond families. Reliable child care provides relief to working and student parents, and supports businesses and community members who count on a dependable workforce. It also supports the future of our youngest residents.
With federal funding available to Central Oregon through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (or ARPA) to support pandemic relief and economic recovery, we have an opportunity to turn our child care desert into an oasis, creating quality, affordable and scalable child care throughout Central Oregon.
Already, Sen. Tim Knopp has demonstrated leadership on this issue, proposing $1 million in state ARPA funds to support such an effort. Our hope is that in the coming days, Deschutes County will match that $1 million commitment through its local ARPA funding.
That funding can support an innovative child care solution that Oregon State University-Cascades, Central Oregon Community College and other community partners have long been working toward. With stable child care contributing to employee retention, the Bend Chamber has been key to this effort. Chamber representatives have met with state and local legislators to ensure the critical need is understood, and raised $130,000 for a child care accelerator, most notably including support from businesses who have lost talented employees due to the lack of area child care.
Called Little Kits Early Learning & Child Care Center (kits being the young of both beavers and bobcats), this child care solution builds on a successful program piloted at OSU-Cascades in response to the pandemic and the urgent child care needs of student and employee parents.
With COCC as a committed partner we have at hand an opportunity to expand the pilot child care program, initially opening spaces for up to 100 infant-to-pre-K children.
Little Kits can leverage assets of both institutions: our early childhood academic expertise, programs focused on nurturing resilience in children, education programs that give child care staff and early childhood educators opportunities to pursue associate or bachelor’s degrees, and students seeking practical experience like internships and apprenticeships in preparation for careers in the early childhood field.
Little Kits can also capitalize on OSU-Cascades’ and COCC’s shared operations, reducing start-up and overhead costs, and allowing the center to attract talented staff with pay and benefits they deserve. And while Little Kits will initially serve OSU-Cascades and COCC employee and student parents, as it grows, it will increasingly accommodate other community member parents.
Little Kits can be sited on land available at either or both campuses — a site on OSU-Cascades’ expanding campus is designated for such a facility and COCC leaders have identified a potential site — and housed in efficiently constructed modular buildings. It is a model that is planned to be replicated across the region to support our community. Already, Redmond is under consideration as a next location.
Little Kits has the support of additional organizations who are each vested in expanding child care options in the region: Better Together, the City of Bend, East Cascades Works, the High Desert Education Service District and NeighborImpact.
For the first time in nearly five years, we are hopeful for our region’s families. Together, we have designed a solution that is backed by the expertise and resources of Central Oregon’s higher education institutions, supported by expert community collaborators and that can serve hundreds of local families
Deschutes County Commissioners can amplify federal ARPA dollars coming into our region to solve a problem that reaches beyond the pandemic into families’ everyday lives and the future economic health of our community. We think that’s a good return on investment.