Rock wall attendant Tim Carr and Annalise Mundal joke with another staff member as Mundal prepared to climb the rock wall at the Kroc Center on Wednesday, April 22. The two are part of the program providing child care for front-line workers. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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At the Salvation Army Kroc Center in north Salem, preschool-aged children would normally be playing together on a playset outside. 

But on Thursday, a group of five elementary-aged kids stood six feet apart, their spaces marked by plastic cones. Around them, four staff watched as they played a toss game.

When daycares across the state were forced to adjust operations a month ago to care for the children of essential workers, many parents scrambled to find childcare.

The Kroc Center became one of 216 emergency childcare providers in Marion County. The center had to adapt to meet the state’s new guidelines which limited the number of kids allowed in a classroom to 10 and required extensive cleaning of surfaces.

But the new emergency daycares, which some childcare providers are calling “pop ups,” have left independent childcare providers in the lurch as their numbers dwindle or they close altogether because they can’t meet the state’s requirements.

Autumn David, who runs Island Adventures Preschool and Childcare, got an emergency license to continue operating but had to lay off one employee. She said that employee applied for unemployment on April 15 but hasn’t heard back.

David is one of 2,117 providers statewide on emergency licenses. Around 60% of the licensed daycares in the state are closed, she said.  David is the president of AFSCME Local 132, the union representing childcare providers in Oregon.

She’s applied but hasn’t heard a response for the U.S. Small Business Administration financial help. However, she was able to get a $1,000 Marion County workforce grant.

When Gov. Kate Brown ordered daycares to close or adapt to serving the children of essential workers on March 25, childcare providers were already seeing less children because of the stay home order.

Larger organizations signed up to serve as temporary childcare providers, a role they normally wouldn’t find themselves in.

That order is set to expire on April 28. State officials with the Oregon Department of Education said they expect to issue further guidance on Thursday, April 23.

Unions members rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday, April 15, to vent their frustration with the state.

David said providers are losing their livelihoods, while places like schools open up care centers.

 “That’s why we’re saying: ‘pop up.’ People didn’t have to go through a strenuous licensure like we do,” she said.

David has also had to adapt. She’s taking care of five kids -- one infant and four school aged – and has winnowed down the number of toys they can play with so she doesn’t have to clean as many. That’s around a third of what she’s normally licensed to care for.

“If you’re open for five kids, or your open for 16, your overhead is the same. You still have rent, utilities. Supplies and food are less, but you clean more, do longer hours,” David said. “Many providers are working longer hours with less pay.”

She said many other daycares are empty.

“Families don’t know when we’re going to come back and when we’re going to resume normalcy,” she said.

Jaxson Bidema tosses a ball to Kylie O'Dell while attending the Kroc Center's daycare for the children of essential workers on Wednesday, April 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The Kroc Center normally has a preschool but pivoted to provide the free childcare service for up to 100 kids.

It’s serving kids of frontline and essential workers aged 4 through 12. The program runs from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and provides meals and the Salem-Keizer School District distributed Chromebooks so kids can study.

The center opened March 30 with a handful of kids and has become “bigger and bigger every day as people become aware of what we’re doing,” said Lt. Quinton Markham.

He said around 58% of the children have parents who work in healthcare.

The Kroc Center recently received a $32,000 grant from AT&T, which helped cover about a week of staffing costs.

“We’re doing this in the hopes that we can be reimbursed through emergency funding,” Markham said.

He said Kroc workers follow the kids as they move from classrooms to the gym to sanitize touch points.

“For example, when they go use the rock wall, somebody’s there wiping down every possible place that could be touched,” Markham said.

He said the center brought on people furloughed from the area’s Head Start and Boys and Girls Club programs to help.

“Fortunately, our facility is built for creating and providing a fun space for a kid to be,” Markham said.

Catherine Azevedo, who is running the emergency childcare program for the Kroc Center, said they’ve opened rooms as needed to and are caring for around 40 kids each day.

“The first week we only had two kids. It was a slow start,” she said.

Each room is limited to 10 kids who may stay together as a group. Other kids who come in on different days have to go to different groups.

That means Azevedo has more staff than she normally would, especially with the increased sanitation needs.

At the end of the day, if there are only a handful of kids left, there could still be six teachers because the classrooms can’t combine.

Azevedo said having a dependable schedule is a positive for kids who would otherwise be bouncing among relatives or friend’s houses.

“For some of them all they needed was a routine and a constant place to be,” she said.

She said it’s difficult to tell 4- and 6-year-olds they can’t hug each other or give high fives.

“You’re giving a lot of reminders. You can’t hug or touch grandma because of these reasons,” Azevedo said. “They forget often because they’re kids.”

She said initially when schools closed, Salem Health surveyed its employees and found there would be a need for daycare for about 400 kids.

But Azevedo said the demand has been less than anticipated.

“A lot of people are still trying to figure out how they can keep their kids at home or maybe with another family member,” she said.

She said the Kroc Center is providing care for those who really need it and don’t have another option.

Teacher Heidi Eckmann tosses a ball to Jaxson Bidema while playing a game that enables social distancing during the Kroc Center's daycare for the children of essential workers on Wednesday, April 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Lillian Govus, Salem-Keizer School District spokeswoman, said the district was going to add three locations for childcare, but only kept one open because of the demand.

Govus said there around 45 children of parents working directly with COVID-19 patients, including medical workers at hospitals and in long-term care facilities and health department workers at the East Salem Community Center. She said if there were 20 more students, they would need to look at opening another site.

“We didn’t know what to expect and so we we’re just trying to be as prepared as possible,” Govus said. “We honestly had no clue what the volume would be like. We had no idea how many Chromebooks students would need to access. We had no idea we would be serving 22,000 meals a day.”

Families who want to register for emergency childcare can visit

Families who want to sign up for the school district’s childcare can contact [email protected] or call (503) 399-3148.

This story was updated to reflect the number of daycare operations in Marion County.

Charlotte Martin climbs the rock wall at the Kroc Center on Wednesday, April 22. O'Dell attends the Center's program providing childcare for front-line workers. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

William Henscheid tosses a ball to Harrison Haskins while playing a game that enables social distancing during the Kroc Center's daycare for the children of essential workers on Wednesday, April 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A group of four to six-year-old children nap and watch a movie during the Kroc Center's daycare for the children of essential workers on Wednesday, April 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)