Bars and restaurants closed. Public schools and college courses went online. Travel was canceled.

But child care was supposed to remain available.

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Oregon Gov. Kate Brown leaned on child care providers to stay open last spring, in hopes that parents working essential jobs could have somewhere to drop off their kids, so they could keep working. But as parents lost jobs and COVID-19 case numbers rose last spring, nearly half of child care providers abruptly closed; they cited the inability to survive financially or adjust to the challenging logistics of the pandemic. Other centers closed temporarily or limited capacity.

Children walk across a field near their child care center, Wonders Early Learning Center, before it closed in March 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Children walk across a field near their child care center, Wonders Early Learning Center, before it closed in March 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Courtesy of Jennie Dalgas / Wonders Early Learning Center

New research shows the closures and limitations meant that more than half of Oregon families who rely on child care providers experienced interruptions at some point during the last year. The results are part of the newly-released “Strengths and Needs Assessment” released by Oregon’s Early Learning Division, and they were based on surveys and discussions with more than 2,000 Oregon parents across all 36 counties, led by Portland State University’s Center for the Improvement of Child and Family Services and research consultants, OSLC Developments, Inc.

The study found that almost “60% of all parents reported that they had experienced a disruption in child care, mainly because their provider was either not providing onsite care or had closed.”

How likely a family was to deal with an interruption varied significantly by race, with nearly three-quarters of families of Black children dealing with such a disruption. Latino families were the least likely to have care interrupted, though more than half of surveyed Latino families (50.3%) reported a disruption. For white families, who constituted more than half of the families in the survey, 61.9% had care interrupted at some point.

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“Throughout this pandemic, we have worked to ensure Emergency Child Care is available for families, especially for frontline workers. The research highlights the increased uncertainty the pandemic created for families of young children, particularly families of color,” Oregon Early Learning System Director Miriam Calderon said in a statement released by the state Department of Education Wednesday. The governor’s office announced earlier this week that Calderon would be leaving the state government to join the Biden administration as an early learning policy advisor.

Families of children with disabilities were also more likely to experience disrupted care, with 63.5% reporting a disruption in the new survey.

Reported disruptions could leave parents with few options, considering Oregon didn’t have an abundance of child care slots even before the pandemic started shutting down centers a year ago. The difficulties were often most severe for families with children in need of extra support, in rural and “frontier” parts of Oregon, where child care has long been in very short supply.

“Parents in frontier areas of the state and those with children experiencing disabilities and/or chronic health care needs were most likely to cite difficulties in finding a provider who could support the needs of their child with a physical or other disability,” the report’s executive summary said.

Concerns about COVID-19 risks also appear to have influenced parents’ choices in a child care setting, according to researchers. The survey found a decrease in families using child care centers — from more than half of families (52.3%) choosing centers in 2019 to slightly less than half (47.3%) last year.

“The finding that families have shifted to using care options in their own homes likely reflects an impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said.

The survey found that parents were roughly twice as likely to express concern about COVID-19 risk at a child care center or preschool than with having a nanny or relative care for children at home.

The research also found a slight uptick in the number of students suspended, expelled or forcibly excluded from care settings, from 5% of children in 2019 to 6.3% last year. The survey found the most common reason for excluding children from care was the “Provider could not manage child’s behavior toward children or adults.” That basis for exclusion was particularly high for children with disabilities.

The report recommends continuing to address Oregon’s longstanding shortage of affordable, quality child care, but also shoring up culturally responsive care for children of color, and providing adequate support so that children with disabilities can receive appropriate care.

“Parents of children experiencing disabilities and/or chronic health care needs also reported higher rates of challenges overall,” the report said. “This suggests that there is a lack of services for these children, especially for those in frontier areas.”

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