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By Michele Smith
The Times 

Feasibility study shows how to turn the childcare desert to into an oasis

 

August 26, 2021



DAYTON—A 2020“Washington Child Care Industry Assessment” sponsored by the Washington Department of Commerce characterizes Walla Walla and Columbia counties as childcare “deserts.” This means 96-percent of families in Columbia County and 18-percent of families in Walla Walla counties do not have the childcare they need. In 2020-21 three in-home providers in Columbia County closed their doors, pushing the county into a childcare crisis.

The issues for parents who seek care for their children are many, including long waiting lists and wait periods, high costs, and the inability to find childcare to fit their schedules, if at all.

Licensing and regulation fees, high costs, reduced income related to the COVID-19 situation, inadequate paid sick leave, and finding and retaining quality staff are significant challenges for childcare providers.

For employers, costs increase when employees can’t access the childcare they need, creating high absentee rates with low productivity and work quality. It is also hard to hire and retain a workforce without adequate childcare.

Columbia County Health System has chosen to address these issues by developing a childcare center for its 218 employees, said Paul Ihle, a social worker at CCHS who serves on a standing committee researching childcare options that fit employees’ needs. He also serves on the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition (WWVELC) Project Coordination Team.

Ihle said the idea is to open a center prioritizing the needs of CCHS employees but also to invite the participation of other stakeholders in the community, such as the Dayton School District.

An ideal location would be close to the hospital and the schools. A zoom walk-through assessment of the church building for sale on South Third Street shows promise, said Ihle, and other buildings are being assessed.

Once funding is secured, the Walla Walla YWCA will license and operate the center.

A new childcare center in Dayton could accommodate Special Education programs and extended day preschool programs, in alignment with the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) and before and after school care. None of the former licensed daycare providers in Dayton participated in an Early Achievers program, and participation in that program would qualify the center as state-supported childcare.

Ihle is asking for community-wide support.

“The more people in the community come up with good ideas and methods of support, the closer we get to a viable program,” he said. “Nobody will be able to pull this off on their own. It is way too complex and expensive, which is why we are currently a childcare desert.”

In the Spring of 2021, Arrowleaf Consulting was brought on board by WWVELC as part of the “Creating an Accessible, Valley-wide Child Care System” feasibility study. To fund the study, WWVELC, in partnership with (CCHS) and the City of Walla Walla, applied for and received a grant through the Dept. of Commerce Child Care Partnership. Data was collected across Columbia and Walla Walla counties through survey responses from families, childcare providers, and employers in Burbank, Prescott, Touchet, Walla Walla, College Place, Dayton, and Starbuck.

There are many goals listed in the study, some of which are; to increase capacity at existing private licensed centers in Walla Walla County and new licensed provider capacity across both counties.

Emphasis will be placed on building navigation and in-person support across the entire system, improving communications and engagement with Spanish-speaking families, developing WWVELC as an independent nonprofit organization, and increasing funding resources.

The Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition (WWVELC) is a good resource for employers, parents, and providers. Staff at WWVELC can be reached by phone at: (509) 526-1777 or by visiting the website at: earlylearningwallawalla.org.

Some additional resources for families are Care Aware of Washington, which provides an online database with information about child care providers and current child care occupancies. The website address is: childcareawarewa.org.

There is a tax credit for employer-provided childcare online at: irs.gov/formspubs/about-form-8882.

It should be noted, the Fair Start for Kids benefits began on July 1. Families at 200% of the federal poverty level or under will pay no more than $115 each month for childcare using the Working Connections Child Care subsidy.

On October 1, families at 60% of state median income, or less, will pay no more than $115 each month when using the Working Connections Child Care subsidy. Providers who accept the subsidy will see their reimbursement rate go from 65-percent to 85-percent of market rate, according to Eiledon McClellan at WWVELC.

 

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