Children play outdoors at the Oregon Child Development Coalition's North Lancaster preschool on March 20, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Dozens of child care providers in the Salem area have closed over the past year, and parents across Oregon reported greater disruptions in child care arrangements in 2020.

That's according to a new report, published April 14 by Portland State University and Oregon’s Early Learning Division. The data gives a snapshot of how pandemic-related closures and changes to child care programs affected parents, based on a survey of more than 2,100 households across Oregon.

“It’s just upset the whole system,” said Lisa Harnisch, executive director of the Marion Polk Early Learning Hub.

Across the state, 60% of parents surveyed said their child care had been disrupted during the pandemic, typically because their provider stopped providing on-site care or closed. Last spring, the Early Learning Division said Oregon child care providers must prioritize serving the children of essential workers or else close their doors by March 25.

By April 2020, the state’s child care capacity had declined to 21% of what it had been before the pandemic, the report said.

Programs were able to care for more kids under a new set of rules released last fall, but the changes also came with increased cleaning and sanitation requirements.

The report didn't detail specific child care provider closures by city or region. But the Early Learning Division said 322 child care providers are operating now in Marion County, down from 374 in April 2020. Polk County now has 78 providers operating, down from 89 one year ago.

Compared to 2019, Oregon parents were far more likely to have children cared for in the home by a nanny, neighbor, friend or relative instead of enrolled in a larger child care center. In 2019, 37% of families surveyed reported at-home care, versus 51% in 2020.

Harnisch said those findings parallel what she’s seen in the Salem area.

Smaller, at-home child care programs have struggled with the cost of extra cleanings and lower staff-to-child ratios required under state pandemic guidelines, with some closing their doors, Harnisch said. That’s led to fewer options for parents.

At the same time, larger Head Start and Preschool Promise programs - both free preschool options for lower and middle-income families - have at times found themselves with more availability.

“Generally it’s been harder to fill those seats because families are worried about sending their children to a program,” Harnisch said.

Harnisch said the pandemic exacerbated many pre-existing issues in child care and early learning, including a lack of affordable options for parents and challenges finding qualified employees because most jobs are low-paying.

She said she’s excited to see more state money available for summer child development and preschool programs. That’s part of a $250 million package proposed by Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders to help children catch up academically after a year of online school.

But Harnisch said it’s important to make sure new free and subsidized programs don’t undercut small local child care providers, forcing them to close down and exacerbating the long-term shortage. That was a challenge many providers raised last spring and summer as some schools and community centers set up new, free programs.

“That’s something as a community we’re going to have to really wrestle with so that we don’t inadvertently have providers hurt by these additional opportunities,” Harnisch said.

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

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