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Washington daycare crisis looms in wake of coronavirus

An already bad situation could get much worse across Washington.

BELLINGHAM, Wash — Over the past three months there have been a lot of sleepless nights for Heather Powell, who runs the Boys and Girls Clubs of Whatcom County.  The club is a major provider of daycare for the community.

In Whatcom County alone about half of the daycare centers remain shut down, and many may never reopen.

"The challenges feel like they're stacked against us sometimes," Powell said.

The centers that are open can currently only operate at 50% capacity with no more than 10 people in a room at any given time.

That means as parents head back to work they will likely have an even more difficult time finding child care, as operators struggle to keep the doors open.

"We've had to cut the number of kids we can put in a room. That has raised our costs to serve kids by 250%.There was already a very slim profit margin, if any," Powell said.

Add to that the increased costs from other coronavirus prevention measures.

Kids' World daycare in Bellingham spends $6,000 a month on masks, alone. 

Powell says the system is simply not sustainable.

"We need this to be treated as an economic development issue. People cannot go back to work if they don't have safe places for their children to go all day."

To that point, Sen. Patty Murray is pushing legislation that would create a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund. 

The money would help pay providers' operating expenses as well as assisting families with daycare costs. 

At the state level, the Washington Department of Commerce is now accepting applications for the first round of a new competitive Child Care Partnership grant program. 

Funding will support grants up to $100,000 each for collaborative efforts that expand child care capacity in communities throughout the state.

More than 1,100 child care centers have temporarily closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, bringing an existing crisis of scarcity to a head. 

Disparities in access to child care are even more pronounced and damaging in economically disadvantaged communities and communities of color, according to a press release from the department.

“We cannot allow a learning gap to persist in Washington state. The long-term costs in human potential for our kids, our communities and our economy are staggering,” Commerce Director Lisa Brown said.

Meantime, Heather Powell is going so far as to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide trailers that could be converted to classrooms.

"We have to get creative," she said. "It's the only way we will get through this."