As Yakima County public schools gear up for remote learning to start the school year, local child care providers and officials are expecting an increase in demand for care — especially among school-age children.

Some efforts launched by the state Department of Children, Youth and Families are also changing, which could affect both providers and families.

What does this mean for local care?

Here are some answers from DCYF and Child Care Aware of Washington — the local nonprofit charged with overseeing child care coordination during the pandemic — on what to expect in Central Washington and beyond.

What did the child care sector look like in Yakima County prior to COVID-19?

Prior to the pandemic, licensed child care programs statewide had capacity to serve just 17% of children under age 13, according to state-commissioned research from late last year. Washington already had the sixth highest share of people living in child care deserts in the U.S., the Center for American Progress reported. This means demand for care far outweighs the licensed spots available. Much of Yakima County was considered a child care desert.

How has that changed?

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

But as of early August, 1,020 licensed child care programs statewide had closed because of the pandemic, reducing capacity by 46,744 children, according to Child Care Aware of Washington. In Yakima County alone, 53 programs closed: 34 centers, 11 school-age programs and eight in-home programs.

Many hope the closures are temporary. But a survey of 5,344 providers nationwide by the National Association for the Education of Young Children last month 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 led to these closures. Early in the pandemic, child care providers struggled to find materials like cleaning supplies and toilet paper. Others saw enrollment drop significantly as parents stayed home. Although income decreased, rent and mortgage obligations continued and utility bills kept coming. Social distancing proved challenging.

In May, DCYF launched a $29 million grant program expected to support thousands of providers statewide. There are no additional grants expected, according to DCYF.

The drop in enrollment has also led to some temporary vacancies.

Yakima County, where wait lists are ordinarily commonplace, had 1,209 vacancies as of early August, according to Child Care Aware.

What does this mean for supply and demand moving forward?

Many providers in Yakima County serve families on subsidies, meaning the state covers a portion of tuition based on financial need. During the pandemic, DCYF continued paying subsidies based on enrollment prior to the pandemic rather than attendance as usual to help prevent more centers from closing. This will lapse Aug. 31, according to DCYF, because the agency does not have authorization to extend it. Co-payments that were temporarily waived for families by the state have already resumed.

As a result, providers are beginning to ask families to use their spot, pay to have it held, or forfeit it, said Deeann Puffert, chief executive officer of Child Care Aware.

“That’s causing some of what used to be deserts to not feel like deserts as much. There is an opportunity to enter in,” said Puffert.

But Puffert said as families begin to realize social distancing and stay-at-home orders might continue for months, they may turn back to child care, filling the temporary openings. Families who return to care later will likely struggle to find availability, she said, especially as more providers continue to close permanently due to low enrollment in the meantime.

The traditional models for anticipating supply and demand of care “are no longer relevant,” said DCYF communications director Debra Johnson.

“Child care capacity has temporarily decreased, while demand for child care slots has also decreased. Families are choosing to keep their children home,” she said. “As we move into the fall, and more schools announce reopening plans, which may include distance learning, we anticipate an increased need for school-age child care.”

How does remote learning play into this?

In Yakima County, at least 13 of 15 local public school districts plan to start the school year remotely.

Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, which provides support to local districts, previously said existing child care centers could provide support for families in which parents can’t stay home from work to monitor student progress.

But that’s if there are openings.

Anticipating increased demand, DCYF has extended waivers for child care providers to care for school-age children in addition to the number of children they are licensed to accommodate. That will be allowed through the school year. Families in need of school-age care can contact Child Care Aware for help finding openings at 1-800-446-1114.

But to oversee that school-age children in their care are engaged in remote learning, Puffert said most child care programs would require additional staff, making sure students are online for a group lesson on time, for example. They would also require strong broadband and equipment like noise-cancelling headphones so multiple students across grades and classes could learn at one time.

What can be done to help?

Community organizations in Yakima like Skateland and the YMCA are in discussions with local districts about the possibility of providing child-age care or a space for districts to do so, if local health recommendations allow.

Puffert encouraged donations to local child care programs — everything from noise-cancelling headphones to sanitizer and paper supplies. She also said she hoped schools would coordinate so all third-graders might have the same video lecture to watch, for example, minimizing the assignments providers need to oversee.

While child care providers are licensed in early childhood education, they are not certified teachers in grade-school learning, Puffert said.

She said teachers, paraprofessionals and others potentially out of work could support learning by volunteering in these settings, providing homework help.

What else?

“Acknowledging how important (child care workers) are during this time is priceless,” said Puffert, pointing out that they have supported learning through before- and after-school programs long before the pandemic. “I would love to see communities think of child care (providers) as the education partners as they’ve always been.”

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