Whidbey organizations work to support island child care

— Created November 4, 2020 by Kacie Jo Voeller

By Kacie Jo Voeller

            Securing adequate and affordable child care has been an ongoing challenge for Island County families, and this need has been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, Island County received a grant of $100,000 from the Washington State Department of Commerce as part of a state initiative to assess and address child care needs in various counties. Local organizations, including the Whidbey Community Foundation (WCF), have also given grants to support child care on Whidbey Island. 

Theresa Sanders, assessment and healthy communities director at Island County Public Health, said the grant money from the department of commerce will help kickstart the Island County Child Care Partnership Task Force. Sanders said the group plans to evaluate needs throughout Island County, create recommendations for policy and eventually test a pilot project.

“The hope is to bring together people that are already doing work and experts in the field as well as community members that are impacted and have a stake,” she said. “[We plan] to bring everybody together to look at the current data, collect any missing data we need and then to really try to form a plan moving forward for the county.”

Sanders said while child care has been an ongoing challenge, the pandemic highlighted existing issues, as an already low number of providers in the county were faced with managing the obstacles presented by COVID-19 and families had school-age children transitioning to virtual learning.

“The reality of how much our economy relies on child care has been highlighted in COVID,” she said. “I think it was always there. (There is) an astronomical cost to it, particularly in Washington and in Island County, and there is a lack of slots, particularly for infants in Island County. The cost, that has always been there even prior to COVID. But now, suddenly, employers are really feeling it because parents are bringing kids to work or working from home and trying to parent.”

Sanders said Whidbey Island faces particular challenges when it comes to child care as well. She said the south end of the island has a shortage of availability for infant care, and on the north end, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island has a long waitlist for its many military families for child care provided on base.

            “We have had a great relationship with them (NAS Whidbey Island), but there is a consistent influx of young families and there is a waitlist for the child care provided on base by the military,” she said. “They have a very long waitlist, so I think that is a particular need that is unique to our community. The current Capt. (Matt) Arny (commander of NAS Whidbey Island) is very aware of this issue and his wife is very aware of this issue, and they are very big proponents of working with the community around this.”

            Jessie Gunn, program manager for the WCF, said she feels the Island County Child Care Partnership Task Force will have the ability to help facilitate the formation of policies to support adequate and more affordable child care for residents.   

“It is fantastic that the Washington State Department of Commerce awarded Island County funds to do this work because the supply side has severely dwindled since 10 years ago or so,” she said. “To be able to do this assessment and then also dedicate resources to hearing from the families and hearing from the providers on this need and what can be expanded and how to improve it is going to not only localize the issue so we can recognize it here better and can find solutions, but it is going to elevate that need to the state level. Collectively we can provide recommendations, elevate stories and hopefully direct some policy change and statewide resources to address this issue.”

            Gunn said the team at WCF has been working since its inception to create a resilient community. The organization supports various groups through its work and in the wake of the pandemic, formed the COVID-19 Community Resilience Fund. She said the WCF awarded a grant to the Opportunity Council for the Northwest Center for Child Care Retention and Expansion in August, with approximately $25,000 made available for pass-through grants to all licensed child care providers on Whidbey Island.

             “The cost of child care, driven by our inadequate supply, impedes the financial stability and resiliency of families with children in our community,” Gunn said. “We are excited to partner with the Northwest Center at the Opportunity Council to help stabilize licensed child care providers on Whidbey Island challenged by the pandemic.”

            Gunn said she feels the attention being brought to the ongoing child care issue will bring about positive change for island residents.

            “There is a lot of momentum right now,” she said. “While this has been a perpetual issue, I think there is a lot that the pandemic has spotlighted in this particular challenge. There is a lot of good that could come out of it from a policy change.” 

            For more information, visit islandcountywa.gov and whidbeyfoundation.org