With most students absent during the COVID-19 pandemic, children get extra outdoor time at the Oregon Child Development Coalition's North Lancaster preschool on March 20, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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Childcare facilities and preschools in Oregon serving hundreds of area children must close their doors by Wednesday, March 25, unless they give priority to serving essential workers. 

The order from the state Early Learning Division, issued Tuesday, applies to nearly all of the 320 childcare providers, daycares and preschools operating in Marion and Polk counties. Those serving three or fewer children can continue to operate.

Daycares and preschools may continue caring for the children they regularly serve, so long as they prioritize the children of medical providers, first responders and other essential workers for available slots.

Childcare providers don’t have to accept new children to remain open, but they do have to fill out a state application saying they’re willing to provide emergency care and follow new health guidelines

The order sparked confusion and frustration among childcare operators, who took to the state agency’s Facebook page looking for clarity. Many commented that they did not want to take on new families.

“It’s creating a lot more questions,” said Michelle Long, owner of Enchanted Child Care and Preschool, which cares for about 250 kids at four Salem and Keizer locations. She said she doesn’t understand why the state is creating more work for itself and providers by making them apply to do a job they’re already licensed to do.

In a follow-up letter posted on Facebook, Miriam Calderon, Oregon’s early learning system director, said childcare facilities remaining open should be prepared to have “difficult conversations with families who do not need childcare and encourage them to keep their children at home.”

Providers staying open must have classrooms holding no more than 10 of the same children each day so kids don’t come into contact with new people. They must also do health screenings daily, including checking temperature, and exclude children if they’ve had close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient or show symptoms of illness.

Many daycares and preschools have already closed their doors in the past week. Those include the Salem-Keizer School District’s preschool programs, Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency’s Head Start program and Family Building Blocks’ emergency childcare centers around Salem.

The Oregon Child Development Coalition was still operating many of its preschool classrooms around Oregon, including one on Northeast Lancaster Drive through last Friday.

Attendance has fallen dramatically as the pandemic’s effects have rippled through Salem. On March 20, about a dozen of the 100 kids who normally come to the center were there by about 9:30 a.m.

Kids accustomed to classes of 20 suddenly had free run of the playground, and employees were able to devote extra time to cleaning, sanitizing and preparing the school garden for the spring.

Odi Campos, the coalition’s program director, said they may apply to operate as an emergency provider after this week’s scheduled spring break. They’re still assessing the local need, he said.

Long said those remaining open are providers who care deeply about the service they provide and want to be part of the solution. She’s questioning how to pay her 49 employees and cover rent, insurance and other expenses as about 30 regular families have pulled their kids out of care in recent weeks, often because they have lost work due to the pandemic.

“I would love to be telling them, ‘Sure, no problem, don’t pay out your 30-day notice ... but then at the same time, I can’t bankrupt myself either,” she said.

Her landlord and insurance carriers still expect regular payment and aren’t giving her any flexibility.

“They told me to take out a loan,” she said.

The Salem-Keizer School District began offering childcare late last week to the children of parents working directly with COVID-19 patients, including medical workers at hospitals and in long-term care facilities and health department workers.

On Tuesday, they had eight children in care at the East Salem Community Center, district spokeswoman Lillian Govus said.

Next week, the school system will expand care to the children of other healthcare workers and first responders, including firefighters, ambulance drivers and police officers, according to assistant superintendent Kraig Sproles.

For now, district childcare is only available at the community center with about 50 spots open. Sproles said they’re working to set up other sites to care for more kids and have locations closer to where parents work.

The district’s teen parent program, housed on the Chemeketa Community College campus, has a nursery designed to care for infants. Sproles said district workers are turning it into a care center, adding items to serve more families.

The district has ordered cribs and rocking chairs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Sproles said he wasn’t aware until recently FEMA had those items available.

“It’s an interesting time,” he said.

Care is available for children six weeks old through sixth grade.

Families who want to sign up can contact [email protected] or call (503) 399-3148.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.