PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A Portland childcare provider tells KOIN 6 News she’s wondering what’s taking so long for federal funding to be distributed to businesses like hers and also said changes the state is considering implementing could make it harder, not easier, for childcare providers to operate.  

Anna Pickel owns Happy Go Lucky Childcare in Southeast Portland and said the pandemic has been extremely difficult for her business. 

“I made very little money in 2020,” she said. “It was one of my lowest profitable years, probably in the last, like, five years.” 

Since the start of the pandemic, Pickel said she’s received just under $22,000 in federal grant money that the state has distributed. She also received a $10,000 grant from Micro Enterprise Services and a Paycheck Protection Program loan. 

This money has allowed her to keep all of her employees, but still, she feels like she’s just barely staying afloat. It doesn’t help that she hasn’t been able to reach her full enrollment of 16 children for more than a year. 

Anna Pickel, right, takes a photo of children at Happy Go Lucky Childcare working on a project on July 13, 2021. (KOIN)

“If I only have 10 to 12 children enrolled, which is where we were at for most of the past year. I’m not making any money. After I pay payroll and I pay my expenses, I’m actually losing money every month,” Pickel said. 

So far, Oregon’s Early Learning Division said it’s distributed $80 million in grants and supplies to 4,000 Oregon child care providers. However, that’s only a fraction of the $546.6 million in federal funds the state has received for child care funding. 

The Early Learning Division said the state is still receiving guidance on how to distribute the nearly $400 million American Rescue Plan Act funds. Of that money, $224 million must go out in direct service grants to providers. The Early Learning Division said providers will be able to apply for those grants in mid-September. 

The division said it is also preparing to make an additional $10 million available to providers who need assistance in reopening their programs. The remaining federal funds will be used to cover child care subsidy copays, the Early Learning Division said. 

Pickel said she’s frustrated the funding won’t be available sooner. She said the pandemic resulted in several unexpected expenses, like purchasing extra toys and materials so her children didn’t have to share, purchasing new equipment to play with outside since the sandbox was off-limits, and purchasing protective gloves, which she said can really add up. 

From April 2019 to April 2021, Oregon saw about a 15% decrease in the number of child care facilities throughout the state, the Early Learning Division said. The number of care facilities dropped by more than 500 between April 2020 and April 2021. 

Even before the pandemic, all 36 counties in the state were considered child care “deserts” for children ages 2 and under, according to a report from Oregon State University. That means there are at least three children under the age of 2 for every available child care slot in the county. Twenty-five other counties qualified as child care deserts for children ages 3-5.  

Pickel said recent changes the state has made or is in the process of making could worsen the child care desert situation. 

She’s particularly concerned about Oregon House Bill 2166 and Senate Bill 236, both of which have to do with preventing providers from suspending or expelling children from their facilities. Both the House and Senate passed HB 2166 and SB 236 in the 2021 session, but Gov. Kate Brown has not signed either bill. Her office is still reviewing them. 

House Bill HB 2166 was brought forth by Gov. Brown and the Racial Justice Council with the hope of preventing suspensions and expulsions in early child care, and recognizing the disproportionate impact of these policies on children from communities of color. 

If passed, the bill would establish the Early Childhood Suspension and Expulsion Prevention Program which the Early Learning Division would serve as a call line for providers. Providers would be able to call the line when there is a child they are considering removing from their program. The line would be staffed with mental health consultants with experience in early learning and child care. The consultants would provide technical assistance or referrals to services. 

SB 236 would require the Early Learning Division to conduct a study on the use of suspension and expulsion in early childhood care and present the results of the study no later than September 2024. It would also enact a ban on suspensions or expulsions in all child care programs by 2026. 

Pickel said she understands the good intentions behind the bills and is concerned about children of color being expelled from programs, but feels that there are other issues that could arise with a ban that the state won’t be prepared to address. 

“I would say for my experience just seeing how the state of Oregon tends to roll out new bills and new rules and childcare, they are almost never adequately funded,” she said. 

She said even with five years to prepare, she’s worried the state won’t have the time to hire enough people to provide care providers with the support they need to work with children who have personality disorders or other disabilities. She said rather than a hotline, she’d like to see more people who are trained behavioral professionals and who can come into her care facility and work with children on their needs for hours at a time. She said sometimes addressing a child’s needs takes four to six weeks and can’t be solved by a phone call.  

Children play at Happy Go Lucky Childcare in Southeast Portland on July 13, 2021. (KOIN)

“I can count on one hand how many children I have expelled from my program in nine years of business, and they were all because they were children who exceeded our abilities to meet their one on one needs for challenging behavior. It had nothing to do with the color of their skin,” Pickel said. 

Pickel said she’s currently receiving numerous calls a day from people looking for infant child care, which she does not provide. She said this is a testament to Oregon’s child care desert issue. She said with such a great need for care providers in the state, Oregon needs to make it easier for providers to open and operate. 

“I don’t think the state is doing nearly enough to try to solve it,” she said.