Southwest Washington will lose spots for 400 toddlers and preschool-aged children this summer, after Educational Service District 112 announced it will shut down its private child care program.
In an email to parents sent Tuesday, ESD 112 Superintendent Tim Merlino said the Southwest Washington Childcare Consortium will close after June 19, noting a “changing child care landscape” exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The district operates 43 child care centers in Clark and Cowlitz County.
“We understand the strain this puts on families, but the operation of this program is simply no longer sustainable for our organization,” Merlino wrote.
ESD 112 will continue to provide preschool to low-income families through the state-funded Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. The district will also operate its federally funded Early Head Start program, as well as before- and after-school care.
However, the Image Early Learning Center, Burton Early Learning and School Age Center, South Ridge Early Learning and School Age Center, Union Ridge School Age Center and, in Cowlitz County, Kalama Early Learning Center will close entirely. Before- and after-school child care programs at the district’s Central Park and Hathaway centers will also close.
The closures represent a significant hit to childcare availability in the region, according to data from ChildCare Aware of Washington, which researches and refers families to child care services. Clark and Cowlitz County combined at the end of 2019 had 277 licensed child care providers, with capacity to serve a maximum of about 770 infants, 1,750 toddlers and 5,500 preschool-aged children.
ESD 112 spokeswoman Monique Dugaw noted that new licensing requirements and minimum wage increases have driven up the cost of providing child care. According to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, ESD 112 spent about $9.3 million on early childhood education in the 2018-2019 school year, up from $4.9 million in the 2014-2015 school year.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has also taken its toll on child care providers in Washington, with 1,393 programs across the state closing in the midst of the pandemic. The state had 5,400 licensed child care facilities as of Dec. 31. At ESD 112 facilities, attendance dropped from 1,800 to 250 children “overnight” during the outbreak, Dugaw said. The district has since laid off 200 staff and closed a number of its centers, continuing to provide service to the families of first responders, medical employees and other essential workers.
The announcement leaves some Southwest Washington parents, such as Meghan Hodges, in a lurch to find a new child care provider. Hodges’ 4-year-old daughter, Kennedy, has been enrolled in ESD 112’s Central Park center since she was 4 months old.
“(Her teachers have) shown a lot of care and they make it clear that they care about her,” Hodges said. “She loves it.”
Hodges and her husband are both working from home and withdrew Kennedy from preschool until the pandemic ends, whenever that might be. Now, the working parents have a new thing on their to-do list: finding a new child care provider. The last time they did that, Hodges was pregnant with Kennedy.
“There’s a reason we stayed at the same place,” Hodges said. “Children don’t do well with change, and we know switching to a different school will be hard for her.”