In March, Camille Munoz had just recently moved her Little Tots Daycare & Preschool in Hermiston from in her home to a new center location on Kik Road. She and her 10 employees and 47 day care and preschool children had more room to grow and learn.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the restrictions to child care providers came flooding in from the state’s Office of Child Care. No longer could Munoz take in children who only needed part-time care, nor could she allow any children to attend whose parents were now forced to work from home or had been laid off. Only the children of essential workers could come to Little Tots under the new restrictions.

And just when Munoz and other providers felt like they had the new restrictions down, a new set of changes would be announced.

“The guidelines changed, literally, week to week, and I couldn’t keep up,” Munoz said. “We’re losing motivation. We used to love our jobs, but now we just feel like robots trying to keep up. It’s stressful on me, my employees, our families, my own family.”

Munoz went from having 47 children at Little Tots to 28. To continue affording to pay her eight remaining staff members, she cut her own salary.

“As providers, we’re also parents and there’s no in-person school,” Munoz said. “I can’t bring my kids with me to (Little Tots) because of the size limits. Unemployment hasn’t come through and we’re now living on a one-person income. It’s very difficult.”

The restrictions are also hard on families and the children that child care providers serve. Kids need structure and consistency, Munoz said, and the restrictions on child care providers have forced many families to pull kids out of day care and preschool, which can be tough on young children.

“We have a large group of kids who’ve had the same group of friends consistently for the past year or so. Then that was ripped away,” she said.

Carmen Wolfe, who has run Small Wonders Daycare out of her home in Hermiston for 21 years, said it’s been hard to see so much change and how it impacts children.

While Wolfe has been fortunate to keep the majority of the 10 children she cares for because their parents are essential workers, she worries about the constant change in situation for many children whose families are just trying to get their child care needs met.

“People have to be wary of their little emotions when making frequent changes,” Wolfe said. “I keep seeing on Facebook these people who are just starting up in-home care for a few kids, and they don’t realize how much of a challenge it can be, so they don’t often last long, and then these poor kids are upended yet again. It’s really hard on them and it makes me sad.”

When the COVID shutdown first occurred in March, Munoz said business dropped significantly because so many people were working from home — restrictions at that time didn’t allow children in child care facilities who had parents working from home; only children of essential workers could attend — or who had been laid off. Wolfe said she had two families who had to pull out their children due to working from home rules, and she held their children’s places in the day care at a reduced rate.

Now, with the county back in Phase 1, Munoz has a waiting list of 15 children. Wolfe turns down at least five families every week. With many parents back to work, and distance learning for elementary schools this fall, families are looking to child care providers for help during the day.

“It is so difficult to find child care in Hermiston,” Wolfe said. “Especially certified or registered providers. It can be very stressful to be a working parent of young kids.”

Enter the Hermiston School District.

The Hermiston School District has partnered with Champions, which has provided an after-school program for the district since last fall as well as summer care, to provide full-time child care for school-age kids when distance learning begins this fall. While some school districts around the state are forming similar child care partnerships housed in their school buildings, Hermiston Schools Superintendent Tricia Mooney said the HSD-Champions child care will take place at the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center (EOTEC), thanks to a partnership with the city of Hermiston.

“School buildings aren’t the solution,” Mooney said. “EOTEC can safely accommodate more students and provide green space so kids can still get outside and play and get fresh air.”

Champions will provide the staffing for child care, while the district will provide students with Chromebooks and Champions staff with training so they can support kids who want to access distance learning while there.

“We’ve known since March that child care has been an issue across our community,” Mooney said. “During the summer, things always look different. But with distance learning and school starting, things change. A high schooler may have been babysitting the neighbor kid in the summer during the day, but when school starts, that high schooler goes back to school and can’t babysit anymore.”

Mooney said while the Champions partnership for child care doesn’t meet every family’s needs since it only accommodates K-5 students, the program will help many with school-age kids whose parents work during the day.

“When we look at our community, there’s a need across the community,” she said. “There are district employees with that need, so they’ll have that option for their own kids. But we were really looking at benefiting our community as a whole.”

Munoz and Wolfe, along with other in-home providers in the area, will continue to try to keep up with the latest restrictions from the state, keep their facilities as clean as possible, and try to keep their upbeat attitudes with children.

“I feel blessed and thankful for my families,” Wolfe said.

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