The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Michele Smith
There Times 

CCHS participating in group studying regional childcare issues

Group funded by a grant from the State Dept. of Commerce seeks answers in creating quality, affordable child care, locally


April 15, 2021

Courtesy Photo

Paul Ihle

DAYTON­­-There will be a licensed daycare vacuum in Dayton, when the only current licensed provider drops out of the business at the end of June, said Paul Ihle, a Community Health Worker for the Columbia County Health System.

"To the best of my knowledge, we are down to one licensed daycare provider, Susan Schlenz, and she has announced her retirement this June. . . I believe that Sylvia Demaris is currently not open for home daycare, and Haley Puckett dropped out of the business at the start of the pandemic," he said.

Puckett was the only provider in Dayton who participated in the c level of certification/licensure, which the state requires for subsidized programs. Because of that, Ihle said there is no longer anyone in Dayton to take foster children or other state-subsidized youth.

Ihle sits on a standing committee at Columbia County Health System (CCHS) looking into childcare options for CCHS employees. He brings much to the table as a retired elementary school teacher and a fifteen-year Early Childhood Education Assistance Program teacher.

The CCHS committee has reached out to Walla Walla YMCA and the childcare franchise Bright Horizons to see if these options are suitable for the health system's employees. Bright Horizons operates a childcare center adjacent to Kadlec Medical Center in Richland.

Ihle said that some longstanding problems in the childcare industry have been magnified by the pandemic and have contributed to childcare center closures.

He knows of providers hiding from licensers. He also knows that some licensed providers have felt hassled instead of helped by new standards designed to improve childcare.

For instance, the big toys that have been enjoyed for years were eliminated in recent years because "soft fall" didn't meet specifications. Instead of offering help with funding they were simply removed.

"End result – safer, boring play yard," Ihle said.

So, who is providing childcare now in our local communities?

"My gut feeling is that people are doing whatever they can dream up with friends, family, neighbors, and under the table providers," Ihle said.

In January, CCHS teamed up with Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition and the City of Walla Walla to hire consultants, Darin and Malea Saul, of Arrowleaf Consulting to study the region's childcare industry, affordability and ease of access. The study is funded through a Washington State Department of Commerce grant.

Members from this coalition have been attending weekly team meetings and monthly work group meetings. The group is looking for people interested in starting childcare businesses or working in daycare. They are also working to identifying buildings that would be well suited for childcare centers in Dayton, Waitsburg, and the surrounding area.

Ihle said a focus group was recently held in Dayton, with consultant Darin Saul and members of the community. This particular focus group consisted of a stay-at-home mother, a plant services manager, a public health official, a business owner/parent/teacher, a former daycare owner, staff from the Port of Columbia, and an employee in the Human Resources Department at CCHS.

Since then, other focus group meetings have been held to hear from a wide spectrum of the community who have a part to play in creating workable childcare solutions, Ihle said.

Ihle said the state funded study should be completed in June. It will be instrumental in identifying what can and should happen next to provide high quality, low-cost childcare, along with offering successful business plans to potential providers.

The study will also answer the hard questions asked by the standing committee at CCHS about who will pay for what in a legal, efficient, and sustainable manner when it comes to creating a childcare center for CCHS employees. Ihle is currently making recommendations to the Hospital District board for their consideration.


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