Like states across the country, Oregon is trying to balance two competing crises: a deadly virus threatening vulnerable people and a deteriorating economy teetering on the brink of a deep recession. At the intersection of those two problems is Oregon’s overstretched system of caring for its youngest residents.

Related: Oregon’s Already Fragile Childcare System Faces Uncertain Future

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Nearly half of licensed child care providers in Oregon shut down

after Gov. Kate Brown gave them a tough choice: to either abide by

strict new “emergency care” rules

, or close their doors.

According to the Oregon Early Learning Division, about 1700 child care centers closed, out of about 4,000.

But the agency is not coming to the rescue of those centers with money they received from Congress — at least not yet. Instead, state officials have opened a new $8 million grant program for the 2,085 centers that have been able to continue operating under "emergency" rules, which prioritize care for the children of Oregon's essential workers.

“This is a non-competitive grant opportunity limited to those open and providing Emergency Child Care,” the ELD said on its web page for grant applications.

The agency is not seeing a current crisis in child care, counting 8,000 open slots among the providers operating under the state’s emergency rules. But the requirements are burdensome and costly, and state officials are concerned that centers that have stayed open are at risk of closing. Some rules cut into the centers’ income by limiting the number of children and asking that the same kids attend each day. Other rules add costs, such as the money spent on cleaning supplies to keep up with the added sanitation of toys and surfaces.

“It is expensive for them, and they’re not seeing enough children to make it work,” said ELD director Miriam Calderon.

Centers that are still operating are doing so, she said, under “conditions that are not viable from a business perspective.”

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The grants are both an acknowledgement that running the centers under the emergency rules is a losing proposition for providers from a business standpoint, and an affirmation that child care is necessary to support working parents with essential jobs.

Related: Oregon Child Care Providers Rally For State Support

The grant application opened Friday, the same day the state closed a survey aimed, in part, at learning more about why many child care centers have chosen to close. The survey asks questions such as “If your program is closed or closing, what is the biggest barrier to reopening your child care program?” It includes “cannot afford to stay open with the reduced group sizes” as one of the answers.

But the survey questions also reflect concerns that Calderon’s agency has been hearing from providers. The concerns are practical as well as financial.

“What actually helps stem the spread — maintaining physical distance of six feet — is not the reality of child care,” Calderon said. “[Providers] are afraid about their safety.”

ELD officials said they should release survey results this week.

The survey is aimed at rule changes and support so that centers can keep running and to help those that closed come back.

Certainly a big component of that is economic, and the ELD’s grant program is intended to at least help the centers that are currently operating.

ELD officials say the grant program is a “first phase” of funding for child care centers. It’s $8 million of the roughly $38 million the state has received in federal money for child care. Another $7 million has already been dedicated to supporting centers by continuing to pay employment-related day care costs, money that normally helps low-income working parents pay for child care.

While Calderon said the child care centers will be necessary as other parts of the economy resume and parents are asked to return to workplaces, decisions on when and how to open will be guided by public health experts at the Oregon Health Authority.

“Data, science, what we know about safety ... will be paramount,” Calderon said.

Related: OSU Study Says Oregon Is Lacking Child Care

But she said the state’s approach also must take into account that these child care centers are businesses, and many had been operating on thin margins before the pandemic. The financial side of child care has only gotten rougher since.

Top leaders in Oregon are also looking at different possibilities of what may come next for the centers responsible for the state's youngest residents. Draft guidance suggested modest changes to the current emergency rules but would maintain the focus on supporting the children of essential workers and tight child-staff ratios.

As far as financial support, the state has $23 million in CARES Act funding for child care that Calderon says it has fairly wide latitude in spending. It’s possible that a later round of funding may go toward helping child care centers that closed a month ago, to open their doors to children again.

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