Why Is It So Hard to Find Child Care?

By Ren Johns, founder of PDX Waitlist

If you’re looking for child care and finding it next to impossible, you’re not alone. Here’s a quick rundown of why it feels more difficult than ever to find day care or preschool openings between now and the fall. Then stay tuned for Part II where I share what to do to find the care you need! 

How the Pandemic Impacted Child Care 

We didn’t have enough affordable care before the pandemic, and now we have even less. Portland was already a child care desert before the pandemic, meaning that there was one slot for every 3+ infants and toddlers who needed one. Then came a year-and-counting global health crisis that dramatically impacted our lives and small businesses like child cares which are largely independently run. 

It’s much more expensive to operate a child care during the pandemic. Last March Governor Brown allowed child cares to remain open but required licensed providers to follow Emergency Child Care guidelines. These regulations have evolved over time, but they require more sanitizing, more cleaning, and often more staffing. By some accounts, this has increased providers’ costs by 47%.

While costs increased, tuition revenue dropped because enrollment plummeted. Enrollment through late December was less than half what it had been previously, due to both regulations capping the size of programs and to family concerns about COVID-19. Even as regulations in Oregon have gradually shifted to allow larger group sizes, some providers have kept their numbers low because family and staff are wary of adding new folks to their bubble. Others would like to expand but have struggled to recruit qualified staff to be able to do so.

Crunched on both sides by declining revenue and increasing costs, some providers closed permanently. Trying to get an exact statistic on how many providers have closed in Oregon is trickier than you might think, but nationally as late as December an estimated 25% of child cares had not yet reopened

What This Means for Your Child Care Search

So as we entered 2021, some child cares had closed and some were operating at reduced capacity in a region where we already didn’t have enough care. And then with the news of a vaccine, parents started coming back in droves.

Unfortunately, the child care system isn’t designed to take an influx of people all at once — the biggest driver of new openings is typically when the oldest batch of preschoolers moves off to kindergarten and everyone else moves up. So this January, families who were ready to go back to care filled most providers to (their COVID) capacity while families who’d previously been enrolled at that child care made plans to return over the summer/fall. And all the families who’d had kids on the waitlist since before the pandemic started asking about openings, as did the families who’d kept their kids home, or had their kids in nanny shares, or perhaps just had their first baby…

And that’s where we stand at the moment — fewer open spots than usual with skyrocketing demand from parents. That does not make for an easy child care search! But there are absolutely things you can do to give yourself the best odds of finding care and to put some back-up plans in place in case of emergency. More on that next post…

Ren Johns is a mom of two young kids in NE Portland. She founded PDX Waitlist out of her frustration at how difficult it was to find care for her first child, and now guides families throughout the city through her consulting, coaching, and free Facebook group on how to find care. 

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