UPDATE (March 18, 8:03 p.m. PT) — While the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak has repeatedly led Gov. Kate Brown to restrict sectors of Oregon's economy — from banning large gatherings to closing schools to turning restaurants into take-out windows — she has gone in the opposite direction and spoken of the importance of maintaining facilities responsible for the state's youngest residents.
Brown has stated more than once that she sees preschools and day care centers as service providers that need to stay open to help critical workers, like doctors and police officers, stay on the job.
“We’re working on a plan for child care at least for essential workers,” Brown said at a recent press conference, “that there are day care sites available for them to go and be safe.”
Wednesday afternoon, state officials took a step in the same direction that it has with public schools by encouraging parents to keep their children under 5 years old at home. In statements released Wednesday, Oregon officials were clearly trying to maintain capacity for child care centers to support children of key people in efforts to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
”I want to stress that child care providers are serving as first responders, and families for whom child care is not absolutely necessary should keep their children at home to ensure these caregivers can serve those most in need,” Early Learning Division director Miriam Calderon said in a press release Wednesday.
At the same time that the state prioritized maintaining space for the children of emergency workers, the state laid out guidelines for how to run a daycare during a coronavirus outbreak. That guidance includes screening children for illness, specific hygiene requirements and directions on maintaining social distancing, including lowering student-teacher ratios.
Oregon's Early Learning Division loosened rules earlier this week aimed at helping two important groups weather prolonged coronavirus "social distancing" rules: families with young children and the child care providers they rely on.
Specifically, the state raised the limits for financial assistance to pay for child care, at the same time it waived co-pays for participating families. The previous eligibility ceiling limited state assistance to families earning up to 185% of the federal poverty amount. The state has raised that limit to 250% of poverty, meaning a family of four can earn up to $5,899 per month and still qualify for state assistance through the Employment-Related Day Care program.
In part, Oregon officials are trying to avoid a high-risk domino effect if child care centers close. Adults in critical jobs such as nursing might stay home to supervise children if they don’t have a day care provider for their kids. Or parents might send children to stay with an older relative who’s considered at high risk of serious illness from coronavirus, which they could invisibly contract from an asymptomatic child.
Child care providers face a bleak picture nationally, according to a survey completed earlier this week by the National Association for the Education of Young People, a professional organization of early childhood practitioners and policy experts. The survey found roughly half of providers are losing income already because of families that can't pay, and one-quarter are losing money because of declining state reimbursement.
Oregon is trying to prop up child care providers by continuing the flow of state subsidies, even in the absence of children.
“Child care providers are able to continue to receive payments from DHS, even if children are unable to attend or if they have to temporarily shut down during the state of emergency,” the Early Learning Division said in a statement explaining its policy changes this week.
The new policies aimed at maintaining day care operations came the same day Brown extended the closure of public schools until April 28. However, when the governor made the long public school closure, she included a child care provision specifically regarding children of critical workers.
Brown's executive order requires schools to provide "child care for first responders, emergency workers, health care professionals, and other individuals consistent with any guidance and requirements provided by the Oregon Department of Education."
There is a balance the state is trying to strike.
A big reason public schools were closed is because administrators found it increasingly difficult to staff schools and provide substitutes when as many as one-sixth of licensed teachers in the state are age 60 or older and considered at high risk from the novel coronavirus.
The governor’s executive order acknowledges that risk, by saying the order should not be read “to require school employees in at-risk categories or public school employees who have an at-risk member of their household, to take action inconsistent with public health recommendations or the advice of the employee’s physician.”
Public health officials have continued to emphasize people work from home and avoid in-person contact as much as possible. At the same time, state officials realize critical workers need to leave their homes to deal with the rising numbers of Oregonians sickened by the coronavirus. And if they’re parents, they need places for their children to go, where they won’t infect people at particular risk, and thereby compound the region’s growing public health emergency.