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Infants, toddlers and preschoolers who attend the Three Rivers Christian School early learning center will no longer be able to use the swing set at recess.

The school recently removed the swings from the frames, and school staff plans to completely take down the sets later this year in an attempt to offset the cost of new licensing requirements expected this fall.

The hope is that swingless playgrounds will bolster the institution’s score on Early Achievers, a state rating system for child care centers. Schools lose points if their students use swings for more than 15 minutes a day, said James Murphy, director of the early learning center at TRCS. Removing the sets eliminates any temptation students have to spend longer in the swings — and negatively impact the score.

Early Achievers ratings are directly tied to how much a child care center receives in state subsidies: The higher the score, the more state subsidies a center gets.

The rating system is optional, but centers that opt out don’t qualify for any subsidies. And full-time child care providers like TRCS see opting in as a potential strategy for reducing the financial blow of new state licensing requirements rolling out this August.

Under the new requirements, employees at child care centers across the state will need to get two new certifications (the equivalent to 20 credits of college classes), a 30-hour training to be completed in the first three months of employment and 10 more hours of professional development per year, among other proposed qualifications.

“I understand wanting to up the standards and wanting to get a higher level of professionalism in the field in general, and I think that’s noble,” Murphy said. “There are good reasons behind this, but they have to keep in mind that it’s going to drive costs up.”

The new requirements put a greater strain on a child care system already at its breaking point, he said.

Right now the average child care worker in Southwest Washington makes about four cents more than minimum wage, said Erin Hart, TRCS superintendent. That’s less than a dog groomer, she said.

If the state mandates employees get higher qualifications, the job will “command more than minimum wage,” Murphy said.

Child care centers pay wages with money predominately earned from the tuition or rates parents pay to enroll their children in the program. That means the higher the wages, the higher the cost of child care.

Many centers in this region already raised their rates to cover minimum wage increases that set in this January, said Danielle Burns, director of Lil’ Red Barn Academy in Longview. The new licensing requirements might force them to raise rates again, she said.

For Polly’s Tender Loving Daycare, rate raises will be a definite under the new requirements, said owner Jennifer Wild. Her center is not on the Early Achievers rating system, so she will have to cover any additional licensing costs with rates alone.

But the new requirements will do more than just increase the cost of day care, Wild said. They will also make it harder for centers to find employees.

For example, her afternoon aides are part-time help that work at the center to support themselves through college, Wild said. Not all of these aides are earning their degrees in early learning or childhood education, so it’s a lot to ask of them to complete a higher degree of training, she said.

It’s a similar situation at TRCS, Murphy said. His part-time staff are typically high school students or retirees, so they are unlikely to pursue additional daycare training.

“When you put these kinds of regulations in place, it could be a deterrent to even come into the field,” Murphy said. “We hire a lot out of (employees) that are in college on a different career path, but they come to work for us and fill a really important role. With the state requirements the way they are, it could be a barrier for them.”

The end result? A “major shortage of workers and a major shortage of child care centers,” Wild said.

Education organizations in Southwest Washington say a “child care crisis” has been brewing over the last decade. The Educational Services District 112 reported in April 2018 that about 150 child care centers in this region closed between 2002 and 2018, while rates consistently increased. The average monthly cost of child care in Cowlitz County in 2017 was $650, according to Child Care Aware, a statewide resource and referral program for child care.

“Licensed child care is expensive, and it is going to become a lot more expensive. … Unfortunately, it appears that child care is going to be a luxury for the very wealthy,” Murphy said in a Jan. 10 letter to the state Department of Children Youth and Families, which oversees licensing requirements and Early Achievers. “For families who can’t afford to pay the tuition, they will have to seek other options including unlicensed and/or underground operations.”

TRCS is advocating that legislators re-evaluate the licensing requirements before they are implemented in August. One proposed bill would buy centers five more years before they have to fully comply with the new requirements. Another would postpone the regulation roll out until there’s a financial system to help cover the added costs of staff training.

The Early Achievers rating system also may help TRCS weather the storm, Murphy said. The center is up for rating this spring, so its state subsidy could increase this year.

Also, centers that opt-in to the rating system receive state grants for employees pursuing additional education in early childhood learning, which would help cover the cost of the new staff qualifications, Murphy said. In fact, additional staff training like those listed in the proposed licensing changes helps boost an center’s Early Achievers score overall.

But there’s a long way to go before TRCS reaps the full benefits of Early Achievers as a level five center, the top tier of the rating system. Getting there would require several environmental changes — like removing swing sets — and the introduction of new practices that occasionally conflict with the center’s faith-based mission, Murphy said. For example, the center can be docked points for saying prayer before lunch because it takes time away from eating.

“They aren’t saying, ‘Don’t ever do these things,’ but if we choose to do these, it’s going to hurt our score,” Murphy said.

It’s a balancing act to meet the new licensing standards, find a way to fund those changes and stay true to the mission of TRCS, Murphy said.

“We don’t ever want to stop doing what we are called to do,” Hart said. “But if we have to scale back dramatically in order to survive, that’s what we will do.”

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