'Child care deserts' existed in every county in the state before the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many existing social issues. As students in Clackamas County start school remotely, one particular problem is on the minds of parents now more than ever: child care.

Even before the pandemic, Clackamas County was considered a "child care desert," meaning it didn't have enough child care slots for children newborn to age 5 who needed them, according to a study from Oregon State University.

Andrea Paluso, executive director and co-founder of Family Forward Oregon, said it's not just Clackamas County; every county in Oregon was a child care desert before the start of the pandemic. A child care desert is defined as a place where there are more than three children for every one available child care slot. COURTESY PHOTO: ANDREA PALUSO - ANDREA PALUSO

"Child care has been a real central concern and issue for the mothers who we organize and work with," she said.

Family Forward Oregon has been mobilizing mothers and caregivers to advocate for economic and reproductive justice in Oregon for over 10 years. The organization has fought for increased minimum wage, paid sick time and more.

She said the pandemic has brought this social issue to the surface for a lot more people than before.

"COVID has made a lot of the failures of our public structures and systems more obvious," Paluso said. She added that the current child care system, or lack of one, has always failed people of color and women. Now it's failing more people.

Paluso believes the pandemic also has led to many more people starting to see the link between adequate child care and a healthy economy.

If there are not enough slots for all the children who need child care, parents might not be able to return to work. If there are not enough employees in a work force, the economy doesn't recover.

"It's always been true that we have relied on child care to really subsidize the rest of the economy," Paluso said. "No one can have a job without their families being cared for by someone else, and here we're in a situation where that cannot be more clear."

Take Wilsonville for example.

Pamplin Media Group reported earlier this month that Wilsonville had a total of 12 certified child care centers — larger operations that can take care of between 50 and 100 kids — before COVID-19 hit the state. That number has been cut in half in the months since the pandemic began.

The city also had five licensed home providers — which care for between 10 and 15 children — before the pandemic, and that number is now just two.

The numbers in Lake Oswego aren't any more promising.

According to the Clackamas County Education Service District, two centers and one certified home in Lake Oswego have closed since March 10, resulting in a loss of 144 child care slots. Four other centers and two certified family homes are still licensed but are not operating. This leaves Lake Oswego with nine licensed child care centers, six licensed certified family homes, three licensed registered family homes, two recorded preschool programs, and one recorded school-age program.

The preschool programs and school-age programs are listed as "recorded" with Clackamas ESD because although these programs are not required to be licensed they do have to be on record with the Office of Child Care.

Jenny Cherrytree's family moved from New York to Lake Oswego a year ago. They immediately had a hard time finding a preschool for their twin toddlers.

"Trying to find good quality care at an affordable cost was just really hard," she said. COURTESY PHOTO: CHERRYTREE FAMILY - The Cherrytree family

Her twins were set to go to Bethlehem Christian Preschool for the 2020-21 school year, but the school recently announced it would be closing for the year.

Cherrytree said the school realized the cost of staying open with fewer students and enhanced health and safety procedures would be too much.

"They're just going to be home," she said of her twin 3-year-old boys.

And Cherrytree is particularly worried about the social effects this will have on the boys.

"My biggest concern for our twin 3-year-old boys is that opportunity to socialize ... and learning to listen to teachers," she said. "Working full-time and then also trying to instill the love of learning in my children is really challenging."

Her daughter is starting kindergarten virtually at Hallinan this year.

Cherrytree said her daughter's teacher also has kids to take care of while teaching full-time.

Cherrytree will be working from home full-time this school year, and her husband will be caring for their children while she works.

"I think this is just showing a real big gap in our society," she said. "We don't have a place for children."

Paluso said the struggle to find child care is a common one.

"Many families have really struggled to maintain employment because of how challenging they found it to get care for their kids," Paluso said.

She added that this often leads to women, more so than men, leaving the work force for child care duties.

"They don't make enough to pay for child care," she said.

The current situation is further complicated by the fact that students will not have the built-in child care of public school, given that most education in Clackamas County is taking place remotely this fall.

This could leave even more parents out of the work force.

"We should not be asking our schools to educate our kids and be our entire social safety net," Paluso said.

She said the fact that this is how the country operates is part of the problem.

"I think there's so many more families trying to manage work and caregiving than we've ever seen before," Paluso said.

And the problems are compounding. "People who work in paid-care professions are also earning poverty level wages," she said.

The pandemic forced a lot of care facilities to close. Some won't reopen, and the ones that do have to navigate new regulations on capacity, leaving fewer available slots for children.

Now, Family Forward Oregon is putting together a list of child care resources for families. But Paluso warned that many people will not qualify for these resources — either due to type of employment, immigration status or income.

She said a real solution would require the government to shift its mindset to looking at child care as a public good.

"Our country and our state have not yet responded to this crisis with a comprehensive plan for working families," she said.

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