Bethany McKim, infant room teacher at Sequim’s Little Explorers Early Learning Center, cares for 7-month-old Oisin last month. Owners of the center said they’ve had difficulty hiring during the pandemic, and that has led to limited hours. (Matthew Nash/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Bethany McKim, infant room teacher at Sequim’s Little Explorers Early Learning Center, cares for 7-month-old Oisin last month. Owners of the center said they’ve had difficulty hiring during the pandemic, and that has led to limited hours. (Matthew Nash/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Child care openings, staffing remain struggles for Clallam County providers

Staffing shortages have increased, stakeholders say

Federal support is coming for child care facilities and families through the $900 billion federal COVID-19 relief package, but Clallam County providers continue to say space is limited and potential employee pools are sparse.

Multiple outlets report about $10 billion of the package is set for child care support grants for cleaning supplies, staff payroll and more.

In Clallam County, finding a spot for a child was difficult prior to the pandemic, and it remains difficult nine months after the region’s COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s always been a problem,” said Mary Budke, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula, which operates units in Sequim and Port Angeles.

“The pandemic just brought it to the surface.”

Teacher Kate Merandy serves lunch to children at the Sequim’s Little Explorers Early Learning Center in late December. Co-owner Erin Bell said they do their best to follow health recommendations for the pandemic by going outside as much as possible, but cold and wet weather and limited space prevents them in some capacities. (Matthew Nash/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Teacher Kate Merandy serves lunch to children at the Sequim’s Little Explorers Early Learning Center in late December. Co-owner Erin Bell said they do their best to follow health recommendations for the pandemic by going outside as much as possible, but cold and wet weather and limited space prevents them in some capacities. (Matthew Nash/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

According to recent data from Child Care Aware of Washington, the state’s official Child Care COVID-19 Communications, Response and Referral Center, Clallam County has 26 openings for child day care service from licensed providers.

Sequim City Manager Charlie Bush said there were only eight slots available in June for children ages 5-12 in Clallam County.

At the beginning of the year, there were 41 licensed childcare providers in the county, but closures fluctuated between nine and 12 facilities throughout 2020.

Ten remained closed as of mid-December, said Marcia Jacobs, communications and marketing manager for Child Care Aware of Washington.

“Some providers are caring for fewer children due to physical-distancing measures and also due to some parents working from home and keeping their children home,” Jacobs said.

“Other providers have added staff to care for more children since some programs have closed. Some of the new children that some providers have added staff for are school-agers.”

Sarah Schmedding plays with Harry Piper on the swings at Bibity Bobity last June. Space for child care has stayed mostly the same at Bibity Bobity in Carlsborg with school-aged children being the biggest shift, owner-director Nicole Goettling said. They used to come after school but now stay all day due to distance learning in-place during the pandemic. (Matthew Nash/Olympic Peninsula News Group file)

Sarah Schmedding plays with Harry Piper on the swings at Bibity Bobity last June. Space for child care has stayed mostly the same at Bibity Bobity in Carlsborg with school-aged children being the biggest shift, owner-director Nicole Goettling said. They used to come after school but now stay all day due to distance learning in-place during the pandemic. (Matthew Nash/Olympic Peninsula News Group file)

School-aged

Business partners Erin Bell and Helana Coddington, co-owners of Sequim’s Little Explorers Early Learning Center, 191 W. Sequim Bay Road, continue to watch their three school-aged children at the 5-and-younger facility as public schools work remotely.

“It’s been so challenging for us to try and run our business as well as work with our children on their education,” Bell said.

Bell’s daughter works from a computer in the office while Coddington’s sons work from computers in the break room.

“They want to go to school so bad,” Coddington said. “They just want to get up here. There are so many distractions.”

With a state waiver, they’re allowed to watch their children there, but it take spots from the facility, which is licensed for 36.

If schools reopen on a hybrid schedule this month, Bell and Coddington hope they can schedule it so their children can go on different days to open up a spot for a preschool-aged child.

Nicole Goettling, owner-director of Bibity Bobity, 11 Childers Lane in Carlsborg, said when the pandemic began, parents of toddlers withdrew the most from the facility, but she expanded the school-aged program.

In normal times, children 6 and older would come after school, but now 17 are enrolled from kindergarten to age 12.

“We’re still fairly full at certain ages, and a good size of school-agers makes up for the gap,” Goettling said.

If school-aged children do go back to school, she said they’d start another preschool class because Bibity Bobity has a waiting list.

Staffing

Licensed child care providers are given a 17-page list of recommendations to follow, such as maintaining 6-foot distances in the facility, Bell said. However, with limited space and colder, wetter weather, some have been harder to follow, she added.

Her business and Bibity Bobity are working with less while needing to do more.

“This is the smallest staff I’ve ever had,” Goettling said of her nine-employee staff, including herself.

“We’re just trudging away. Without grants, it would have been touch-and-go. Grants helped me to keep people employed.”

Even with federal, state and local financial support, local providers like Bell and Coddington said finding staff continues to be their biggest challenge.

“We’ve barely had any applications for open positions and had reduced hours because of it,” Bell said.

In March, the Sequim unit of the Boys & Girls Club, at 400 W. Fir St., started the pandemic with 35 children of ages 5½ to 14. Since then, it has increased that number to 70.

Budke said the club first opened up only to community essential workers’ children with no one at home.

Now, unit directors for the Sequim and Port Angeles clubs have some latitude for who can come depending on situations at home.

The new Port Angeles club at Lauridsen Boulevard and Francis Street will expand Port Angeles’ capacity to 70 children, Budke said.

“We are looking at a few spaces to use,” Budke said. “The closer to us, the better. I don’t want kids transferring all over the place because that compounds the COVID impacts.”

She said community donations have helped club members with technology by providing new computers.

“Our kids are doing well; there’s a lot of laughter here,” Budke said.

“Our staff, with help from the school districts, are making it the best it can be. We know it’s best for kids to be in a classroom.”

One of her other concerns is for teenagers who have been disconnected from their friends in-person since March.

County-wide help

A coalition of child care providers across Clallam County, including the Olympic Peninsula YMCA and the Shore Aquatic Center, continue to seek solutions for families.

Budke said “no one entity can take care of all the kids in the community” and that there’s “never been such a spirit of helping people” as there is now.

In December, Sequim City Manager Charlie Bush got the OK from city councilors to support child care needs in Sequim up to $35,000 in December and January, with revenues from general funds for Budke to help distribute as needed.

“It’s a stressful environment right now, and we’re trying to work with them as we can,” Bush said.

Early in the pandemic, Sequim city leaders were tasked to track child care issues in the county by Clallam County’s Emergency Operations Center.

Child Care Aware of Washington is a nonprofit that offers free support for families to find local, licensed providers, and for providers to find support to stay open and receive supplies while meeting increased state guidelines.

For more information, call 800-446-1114 or visit childcareawarewa.org.

________

Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].

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