A study that found every county in Oregon is short on child care came as no surprise to Kim Barrick.
The Peace Learning Center on 12th Street in Astoria, where Barrick works as director, has waitlists for every class. In the toddler-age classes, the wait can stretch 10 children deep.
The learning center, run as a mission of the neighboring Peace Lutheran Church, serves around 40 children at any given time. It is just reopening a class for 1-year olds after having to close it for a while due to lack of staff.
“I have no doubt that class will be full by the end of the month, and we will have a waitlist,” Barrick said.
The learning center is not alone.
The study from Oregon State University found that all 36 counties are “child care deserts” for infants and toddlers 2 and under. Clatsop County, along with Columbia and Tillamook counties, is considered a child care desert across a range of ages, from infants to 5-year-olds.
The report defines a child care desert as a community with more than three children for every slot available at child care centers or home-based providers licensed by the state. The situation is instantly familiar in Clatsop County, where many organizations operate with long waitlists and parents struggle to find care, especially for infants and toddlers.
“We’re always full here,” said Becka Blacksten, the owner and operator of Soar With Us, which serves about 48 children every day at its facility in Warrenton. “I know there’s just a huge need here for child care.”
She is in the process of opening a child care center and preschool in Gearhart that will be able to serve 53 children — in part because of the long waitlists she and her staff see in Warrenton.
Online resources for parents list 23 child care facilities in Clatsop County, though the list only covers organizations that want to be included.
The number of certified child care centers in Clatsop County appears to have declined in recent years, according to Eva Manderson, director of Northwest Regional Child Care Resource and Referral, which primarily works with providers in Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties on professional development and licensing.
Many issues play into this decline, she said.
Child care can be costly to provide, with payroll at the top of the list. Often centers struggle to pay staff more than the minimum wage and still keep costs low for parents. High staff turnover is a common concern. State licensing requirements are constantly changing, but in recent years, there has also been an increase in new requirements.
Then there are changes to providers’ personal lives.
“People will often go into child care because they want to be home with their kiddo, so they take on other kids, and that works,” Manderson said. But then the provider’s child grows up, and maybe they decide it’s time to close.
Lil’ Sprouts, run by the city in Astoria, is one of the few facilities in the region that offers programs for children as young as 6 weeks old. In recent years, it has become one of the city’s primary child care providers.
Erin Reding, preschool recreation coordinator at Lil’ Sprouts and Port of Play, said the closure of a large center in Warrenton several years ago seemed to hit the county especially hard.
For parents, child care easily costs hundreds of dollars a month, even with state or Coast Guard subsidies to help ease the burden. People often turn to family and friends for help with babysitting.
Heidi Sather’s family relocated to Astoria last summer, following her husband, who serves in the Coast Guard. Sather planned to go back to work in social services and started looking at child care options months ahead of the move.
As a state contractor working in the Oregon Department of Human Services’ self-sufficiency office, Sather tells clients often, “If you know you’re going back to work or school, start looking for child care now. Don’t just put your name on a waitlist and wait. Keep calling. If there’s a full-time care option available, but you only need part time, you might as well secure full time while it’s there.”
It was advice she found herself following before the move to Astoria. The family arrived at the end of June and her youngest son started at Lil’ Sprouts in early July.
“To me it is the best place I could have gotten him in,” Sather said.
For Sather and her family, a Coast Guard subsidy helps, but child care is still a major cost. “It’s tight on the budget, but I see the long-term benefits,” she said.
With her youngest cared for and her oldest now in second grade and enrolled in after-school programs, she is free to start her career again and contribute financially to the household. But it’s a juggling act that many parents struggle with, especially those in tighter financial situations.
“You could be going to work and pay half of what you make to child care,” she said.
At that point, some couples ask themselves if it makes more sense for one parent to remain at home.
“Availability of child care plays a critical role in the lives of Oregon’s families with young children, including if, where and when parents work,” Megan Pratt, an associate professor and the lead author of Oregon State’s report, said in a statement.
“There’s also a growing understanding of the central role stable, quality child care plays in supporting a child’s early development, providing the foundation for lifelong learning and well-being.”
The study, commissioned by the Oregon Early Learning Division, did not delve into questions of affordability or quality of care, two factors that play a major role in how parents are able to access child care. Instead, it focused on the number of slots available.
For one local group, in particular, quality and affordability are chief concerns.
Dan Gaffney, a retired Seaside principal, has been involved in looking at ways to provide preschool and early learning services in Clatsop County for years.
He helped start Clatsop Kinder Ready after his retirement, working as the group’s coordinator. He left that role in 2017 to focus on a feasibility study to look at providing subsidized, high-quality preschool slots in Clatsop and Tillamook counties.
The feasibility study followed the Pay for Success model, which posits that services like quality preschool are an investment that can lead to a cascade of benefits and cost savings elsewhere in a child’s life and development.
Educators see the long-term effects and differences between children who receive good early education and care and those who don’t, Gaffney said.
Quality preschool is key to preparing children for what comes next, helping them develop important social and emotional skills, he said. Providers can also intervene earlier on learning or behavioral issues that may otherwise place a child in special education later.
Lack of access to early care disproportionately hits lower-income and minority families hardest.
Gaffney’s feasibility study is now complete and he is moving into a second phase. His team’s work will be taken on by the regional Northwest Early Learning Hub to further investigate child care needs and barriers in Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties.
Gaffney hopes the move will put the three counties in a good position if more state money for early learning services becomes available.
Gov. Kate Brown pitched a budget plan in November that added $38.3 million for child care as part of an overall funding package for schools and education.
The money would go to increasing the availability of infant and toddler child care and provide more support for early childhood educators, among other measures.
“Let’s get ourselves in position,” Gaffney reasoned. “If there is more money, we’re shovel-ready.”