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Samantha Jimenez, a provider’s assistant at Nani’s Child Care, right, wears a mask as she carries 6-month-old Lian Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Yakima, Wash.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the already-fragile child care industry hard.

There’s bipartisan agreement at the state and national level about that, along with acknowledgment that intervention is necessary. But consensus is yet to be found on the right solution.

During the pandemic, child care providers have been considered essential to care for the children of health care and agriculture workers, for example.

But as of mid-January, 13% of providers statewide closed because of the pandemic, a loss of 712 licensed child care programs, according to Child Care Aware, a nonprofit that works with child care providers statewide. It has reduced capacity by 29,290 children.

In Central Washington, here’s how that breaks down:

  • Benton County: 19 programs closed across three centers, two in-home programs and 14 school-aged programs.
  • Columbia County: one closed in-home program.
  • Franklin County: six closed programs across one center, three in-home programs and two school-aged programs.
  • Grant County: eight closed programs across three centers and five in-home programs.
  • Kittitas County: three closed programs across a center, an in-home program and a school-aged program.
  • Walla Walla County: three closed programs across an in-home program and two school-aged programs.
  • Yakima County: 35 closed programs across 20 centers, five in-home programs and 10 school-aged programs.

Many hope the closures are temporary. Some programs have rebounded since early in the pandemic. But a survey of 5,344 providers nationwide by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in July 2020 showed 29% expected to be permanently shuttered by the end of September, while just 18% of respondents expected their programs to survive more than a year without government intervention.

A combination of things caused the closures. Early in the pandemic, child care providers struggled to find materials like cleaning supplies and toilet paper. Although income decreased, rent and mortgage obligations continued and utility bills kept coming. Social distancing was another challenge.

Others saw enrollment drop significantly as parents stayed home. Statewide there were 27,833 reported vacancies as of mid-January, according to Child Care Aware. Across the Central Washington counties listed above, there were 3,270 vacancies reported, and 1,326 in Yakima County alone. These vacancies provide openings for new families to enter the market and secure care. But they also represent a significant loss in income for providers.

Many of those providers who have remained open more recently reported to NAEYC that they’ve gone into personal debt or dipped into personal savings to cover pandemic-related costs.

In Washington, the state has poured more than $200 million in funding into the child care sector since March 2020 in an attempt to buoy it, according to DCYF communications director Debra Johnson. Some of this has been in the form of grants to providers or subsidy co-payment coverage for families, for example.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka

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