Child care programs in Pullman have been struggling since pandemic restrictions caused some to shut their doors last year, and while many have since reopened, those running the programs say challenges lie ahead.

According to Child Care Aware of Washington, which tracks child care data throughout the state, there were 19 licensed child care programs in Whitman County in 2020 — down from 29 reported in 2015. In April of 2020, the organization said six of those programs were closed, likely because of the pandemic, and five of those were in Pullman.

While many child care programs in the city have since reopened, Child Care Aware of Washington said it is likely some have closed permanently. Meanwhile, directors of local child care programs say they are having difficulty in meeting a surge in demand this spring.

“As the vaccine has started to roll out, we have seen more inquiries and it’s just a little different than in the past because when we have people that are wanting to enroll, they’re looking six months out, maybe three months out,” said Jackie Eveland, director and owner of Building Blocks Child Care Center. “But this seems just more ‘OK, my employer wants me back, I need care in two weeks’ — and that’s hard to accommodate.”

With attendance and revenues down to 30 percent or less, Eveland said her program and others like it took a major financial hit during the pandemic, and despite access to some federal or state relief most are still trying to recover. Without access to loans through the Federal Paycheck Protection Program, she’s doubtful Building Blocks and others would have been able to stay open.

“I don’t know what I would have done without any of that,” she said.

Eveland and her peers running other child care programs in Pullman said one of the major challenges they’re facing now is recruiting qualified staff.

Some programs had to lay off employees last summer to keep budgets balanced and while many have returned to work, recruitment has been difficult for a variety of reasons.

“There are centers that are in our surrounding area that are still closed, and some … (are) looking at reopening, but now they’re trying to find teachers to fill in all those spots,” said Andrea Thomas, director of Pullman Christian Child Care Center. “Because the same teachers who were there pre-COVID maybe have found a different job while waiting, or have decided to stay home with their own family or have moved — that is a new struggle for them to be able to reopen.”

Thomas and Eveland said another reason employees may not be open to returning to work immediately is that they’re hesitant to lose unusually good unemployment benefits.

Even with difficulties caused by the pandemic, they said they believe the Pullman community offers an unusually high quality of child care and are optimistic about resuming full operations in the fall. They said part of the reason for that is because Pullman is a diverse, highly educated demographic and many of the people running local child care programs come from educated backgrounds.

They said it is also partially because directors of at least seven child care programs in the city have been in regular communication for a long time — even meeting weekly since the start of the pandemic to commiserate and share advice and strategies for how to persevere.

Directors of these same programs will host an hour-long webinar 1:30 p.m. April 17 via Zoom to tout child care in the area, help outline the options to local families and answer questions. Thomas said the seven programs that will present does not represent every child care program in Pullman but it is a good representation of what’s offered to local families.

She said participating programs range from the relatively private Montessori School of Pullman to local Head Start programs geared toward lower-income families. In the hour-long webinar, each program will host a short presentation followed by a question and answer session.

“What we’re hoping is it’s going to be like a one-stop-shopping place,” said Beverly Wolff, head of the Montessori School of Pullman. “Almost like if you go to a job fair, and you have lots of people there and in one job fair, you get information about lots of different possibilities. We’re hoping it will be like that for families.”

Those who wish to attend the webinar can join Saturday, April 17 via Zoom at https://tinyurl.com/pullmanchildcare. The password for the event is “Child.”

Parents of a child 13-years-old or younger that are interested can also take a survey to help identify child care needs and challenges in Whitman County at https://opinion.wsu.edu/childcareneeds.

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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