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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Critical demand for child care services in Bellingham

Mayor cancels summer events and programs per Health Department recommendations

Lake Padden Triathlon in 2019.//, Photo courtesy of the City of Bellingham

By Benjamin Leung

On April 20, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood announced the cancellation of a number of summer events and programs hosted by the city. The announcement came a week after Whatcom County Health Department Director Erika Lautenbach’s recommendation to cancel summer events in Whatcom County.

The cancellations include all-day summer day camps, the Parks and Recreation athletic leagues and summer aquatic programs.

Due to restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, the need for child care has increased, according to Janice Keller, the acting communications director in the Mayor’s office.  School closures, child care business restrictions and other factors have created these needs, Keller said.

“We anticipate city summer programs being canceled will add to those needs in the months ahead,” Keller said.

According to Keller, some city employees whose jobs included hosting summer programs were given new responsibilities, such as serving as parks ambassadors. Temporary positions, normally summer program staff, were not hired once the city knew programs would be canceled.

Public reception to the cancellation of summer programs has been mixed, Keller said.

“We’ve received many ‘thank you’s’ from those residents who appreciate that city leaders are taking a cautious approach to helping prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Keller said. “We’ve heard from others who are understandably disappointed that our traditional summer programs are unable to proceed as planned.”

City leaders are adhering to Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders to continue only essential activities and using Whatcom County Health Department recommendations and data to make decisions, Keller said.

“Being vigilant about our community’s health and safety has resulted in many difficult decisions and changes, and we know these changes are painful and unsettling for all,” Keller said.

At the Bellingham Public Library, which usually offers programs for children such as Builder’s Club, summer programs and events involving the public are currently in limbo, according to Bethany Hoglund, the deputy library director.

“One key program is still going forward,” Hoglund said. “I am happy to share with you, the library’s continued plan for Summer Reading for all ages: children, teens and adults.”

The summer reading program will follow the same bingo card format of previous years, according to Hoglund, encouraging everyone of all ages to read to win prizes. Kids will set their own reading goals, whether its three squares, three bingos, or completing the entire board, at which they’ll receive a free book upon meeting their goal.

Charlene Paz, a parent, said her family looks forward to city summer programs and camps every year, especially those hosted by Bellingham Parks and Recreation. Paz said she feels frustrated, disappointed and upset by the cancellation of summer programs. 

“I have bought a trampoline, basketball hoops, exercise equipment and bikes to keep them outside playing,” Paz said. “It will take a lot to keep them away from TV screens, but I will do it.”

Tara Sundin, Bellingham’s community and economic development manager, stressed the importance of investing in the child care industry at the Bellingham City Council meeting on May 5. According to Sundin, the best strategy for business recovery is to invest in the child care industry.

“I think we can all recognize that all of our industries are gonna need this one in order to get back to work,” Sundin said.

According to Sundin, 50% of Bellingham’s child care operators are currently down. Social distancing will reduce the efficiency of child care providers and drive up costs, Sundin said. A survey conducted in March by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 30% of 6,000 child care centers surveyed said they wouldn’t survive a closure of two weeks without significant public investment.

“We were thousands of child care slots short before [COVID-19], and this industry needs us. I think more now than it ever,” Sundin said.

On June 8, Sundin plans to introduce a proposal to the city council called the “Housing and Human Services Response to COVID-19.” It will focus on providing housing security, food security, social services and child care.

“I anticipate that we will be focused on assisting some of the larger operators like the nonprofits like the Y[MCA] and Kids’ World, etc.,” Sundin said.

According to Sundin, the Bellingham Planning and Community Development Department is also exploring a possible partnership with the Opportunity Council, a community action agency that provides child care resources, in addition to other services and programs.  

“They’re launching a new program which I’m very excited about,” Sundin said. “It’s going to look similar to a small-business development center for child care and there’ll be specialists in child care. They’re in the process of hiring right now.”

At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County, which operates Kids’ World, they expect a similar demand for child care this summer as to previous summers, according to Heather Powell, the CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County.

“Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to prepare to meet this demand,” Powell said. “The ratios that child care centers are currently able to operate at are likely going to decrease.”

When asked whether the facilities received any support from the city of Bellingham, Powell said she was unaware of any support specific to the COVID-19 response other than the guidance being offered by the Whatcom County Health Department.

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