At Small Wonders Grant Park in Portland, 15 3- and 4-year-olds in the “Owls” classroom are getting ready to sing songs with teacher Julia Pitner.
As they sing and dance in a circle through each song, other classroom staff — teacher assistant Miranda Feuer and teaching aide Emma Francioch — clean surfaces around the room. At the same time, they set up for snack and nap time, and take students — one at a time — to the bathroom.
“We do a lot of things all at once,” Feuer said as the kids sang through a rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”.
Inside Small Wonders’ classrooms, kids are singing and learning all day, every day, completely unaware of all the other tasks the adults are doing. That’s intentional, owner Allison Morton said.
“The teacher’s job is to focus on the play and the projects like we always have so that the preserved world of kids is still happening,” Morton said.
But outside of the classroom, Morton and her administrative staff are doing all they can to keep the school going. They call the state to follow up on background checks for new employees. They respond to messages from interested families. And they keep track of staff absences to make sure they’re staying within state-mandated student/teacher ratios.
Throughout the pandemic, Morton has sent messages to state officials, seeking support. Meantime in Salem, roles were changing, with the head of Oregon’s Early Learning Division leaving to accept a role in the Biden Administration. At the end of October, Morton’s message to ELD bore the subject line “Crisis point, need help”. The message was about background check delays that kept newly hired employees from starting work.
Small Wonders’ difficulty with background checks is just one of a number of problems facing large child care centers and small home-based providers alike, as Oregon’s fabric of support for families with young children has continued to fray through the pandemic. Some of the problems are institutional — with the state’s small early learning agency unable to keep up with the demands from the private sector — while others are tied to Oregon’s tight labor market, affecting both potential staff and clients.
After an abrupt short-term closure for child care facilities when the pandemic first started last year, the state has encouraged centers to stay open. But not all of them have.
Commissioned by Oregon’s Early Learning Division, researchers from institutions including Portland State University surveyed thousands of child care directors and teachers this year. Directors said programs were operating at two-thirds capacity, with about half of them reporting at least one closure since March 2020.
And while child care is similar to other small business sectors still reeling from the pandemic, Oregon Early Learning Division Director Alyssa Chatterjee said something sets child care apart from other industries: It’s a critical service for the state’s workforce, but it’s in the hands of private companies.
“One of the difficulties of our child care system, which is not unique to Oregon, is that this is a private market, and it is largely run on the backs of parents,” Chatterjee said.
From the state, providers report delays, lack of support
Child care centers rely heavily on parents for tuition, but the state also plays a big role — from offering financial support to enforcing regulations.
Through the pandemic, child care providers have had to absorb the cost of following COVID-19 safety protocols and changing regulations with fewer paying clients.
Isabel Arroyo started her Spanish immersion child care program in Beaverton in December 2019 — just a few months before the pandemic shut her business down. She used savings and credit cards to pay for things, but that only went so far.
“I need to pay for the mortgage, I need to pay for everything,” Arroyo said.
She did receive some initial state and federal funds in 2020, and she was able to accept a few children again. Arroyo also applied for federal stabilization funds, but some of those payments have been delayed — including hers. As she waits, Arroyo says her financial picture is getting worse — she’ll have to use the federal money to pay a pile of mounting bills.
“I need to pay the water, the gas, the food for my kids when they’re coming.... I need to pay for everything, for the tables, for the chairs,” Arroyo said.
Arroyo has asked the state for answers, and she’s also asked her union. Oregon AFSCME Local 132 said it’s heard from a number of providers that are going into debt, caring for the state’s children.
Chatterjee said the state of Oregon is facing “procurement challenges” that have caused the delay, including staff vacancies and an outdated system to pay providers directly. ELD has had to process thousands of grant agreements individually.
Chatterjee is hopeful that if it passes, President Biden’s Build Back Better plan can provide another financial opportunity for providers.
But financial help isn’t the only thing providers want to see from the state — they want to see more support, coaching, and collaboration rather than what Morton calls a “punitive” relationship.
“This is a time where we could really use an ‘oomph,’ than to be pushed down,” Morton said.
She said her program was reprimanded recently for an enrollment error. She said she’s also tried to ask ELD questions about how to manage COVID-19 in child care settings, but has been redirected instead to the Oregon Health Authority.
Portland child care provider Anita Rea-Davis would like to see more provider input in ELD decisions. She cites the constant rule changes at the beginning of the pandemic, which she said left providers scrambling to keep up.
“Some things just aren’t logical,” Rea-Davis said.
ELD has held several provider information sessions over the last few months in both English and Spanish. Those will continue in 2022.
While providers like Arroyo are waiting for government help, ELD reports most providers have received their first stabilization grant payment. Of more than 2800 providers approved to receive child care stabilization grants, more than 2300 have received a first payment.
AFSCME organizer Aimee Olin worries about the impact these delays may have on providers still waiting, like Arroyo.
“These are stabilization grants, so they’re supposed to stabilize, and our fear is by the time they hit people’s doors, will they be in this cyclical crisis again?”
For parents, a lack of availability and affordability
Two recent surveys from two different state agencies point out the effect child care’s difficulties are having on families and the workforce. The Early Learning Division published a survey earlier this year, in which parents spoke about high costs and lack of available care, and the need for culturally responsive programs or care for children with disabilities.
According to October data collected in the Census Household Pulse Survey, 88,200 Oregonians reported caring for children not in school or daycare as the main reason for not working.
That’s the case for Levi Rogers. He’s been a stay-at-home dad for his two daughters since he lost his job last year.
Rogers’ older daughter goes to preschool part-time. He’s had trouble finding full-time care for her and his infant daughter.
Rogers wants to go back to work, but he says it has to make sense financially with the cost of care.
“I’m kind of just weighing the cost of committing to be a stay-at-home parent, or finding a job that pays enough that makes child care worth it,” he said.
While some providers are open to new children, others have long waitlists. Morton at Small Wonders said she gets several inquiries every day from families looking for a spot. She tells them they may have to wait until next summer or fall.
That comes back to staffing. Without a full staff, centers can’t be fully open to families.
From March 2020 to April 2020, jobs in child care plummeted from 13,000 to 8,400, according to the Oregon Employment Department. By June 2021, numbers rebounded a bit, to 10,800 jobs. But a gap still remains.
Finding — and retaining — staff is not a new problem in the child care sector, said ELD director Chatterjee.
“But it’s been exacerbated by the fact that since everybody is now struggling with recruitment and retention, we’re competing with sign-on bonuses, or with Amazon, or with some of the benefits that Starbucks can offer,” Chatterjee said.
Staff show passion, recruit others
At Small Wonders, a whole classroom sits empty and dark because Morton can’t find three teachers to staff it.
“I think child care notoriously sees a lot of turnover, and so it sort of snowballed into this whole other realm,” Morton said.
She pays for online ads. She brought in students from a nearby high school for paid internships during the summer, and after-school jobs during the school year. She asked former teachers, like Pitner, to come back for a year.
Morton herself has had to take on teaching full-time at Small Wonders in addition to her administrative duties. Other administrators have had to add snack time or “breaking” for teachers on top of their daily responsibilities.
She said all the competition for the same applicants makes finding staff now more difficult than ever.
“If you have child care and a few other job areas that pay basically a comparable rate, people are gravitating toward other jobs that are a little bit more passive, or jobs you don’t have to take home with you, versus child care which is a physical job, it’s really active and busy, but there’s a big emotional piece that ties into it,” Morton said.
Children notice when teachers don’t stick around, said Small Wonders teacher Jacky Reyes.
She’s trained new teachers in her classroom who have stopped showing up a few days later.
“It can be challenging at times, just because it’s like, over and over again, and I can see how, in some of the kiddos, it can be a little difficult to get attached to some of the new teachers, and then having them leave,” Reyes said.
“...But when they do connect with someone, it’s great, because you can see the connection they have with this awesome teacher.”
Before starting at Small Wonders, teaching assistant Miranda Feuer worked at a grocery store.
“Talking to adults every day who are mad that we didn’t have plastic bags was just, so not fulfilling in my life,” Feuer said. “Now, coming here, I’ll have a bad day…”
Feuer recalls a student who gave her a big hug, making her day better. At lunch, kids tell her about their pets or their new toasters.
She said her job at Small Wonders is the best job she’s ever had.
Next year, she’ll be a teacher, taking over the Owls room from teacher Julia Pitner, who’s been filling in.
“It is a very busy job, but it doesn’t feel busy,” she said.
Despite problems, providers keep going
Providers and employees working in child care will tell you they don’t do it to “get rich.”
“You do it because you have a heart for what you do,” said Anita Rea-Davis, the director of All Families Welcome, which consists of her home in North Portland and a center in Northeast.
She said she’s sad for the child care providers who have lost their businesses over the last couple of years.
“They’re very valuable to our community because they are, most of them women of wisdom,” Rea-Davis said.
Rea-Davis’ program serves children and families with high needs, offering child care to families in crisis — whether it’s related to mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, or housing.
She’s slowly restoring pre-pandemic supports, such as offering 24-hour and weekend care and bringing in community partners to help. The center actually opened during the pandemic in 2020, with furniture she picked up from a child care center in Corvallis that closed.
But, like Morton, staffing continues to be her biggest issue. And while Rea-Davis said she’s had “brief thoughts” about leaving the field, she said she stays in business to help families that need it.
“That’s the one thing people needed right now is consistency,” she said. “They needed a safe, consistent place for their children to go to while they were trying to figure out their crisis.”
And while providers and teachers may not get into child care to “get rich,” that does not mean they want to be underpaid.
ELD director Chatterjee hopes this national conversation on child care will revolutionize the system, “redefine the child care sector” as she puts it — and fund it differently.
“I think, on principle, everybody hopefully agrees that child care providers should be earning a living wage, that they should have access to healthcare and retirement ...substitute pools ...they should be treated the way our K-12 educators are treated,” she said.
In Oregon, she wants sufficient capacity statewide so that families can have more choice in child care, rather than choosing out of necessity. In short, Chatterjee wants investments to support existing child care centers and recruitment to create more of them.
Provider Allison Morton said those ideas are good, but she said what current providers need is immediate help.
“We aren’t going to be able to do that if there aren’t enough programs, if we can’t make it through this little bit,” Morton said.
“And so, I would encourage a little bit more attention on the here and now so that we can sustain programs and get to that side where growth can happen.”