Emmanuel Episcopal Church sign

The preschool at Emmanuel Episcopal Church will be replaced by a smaller one funded with state grants and operated by the Coos Bay School District.

SOUTH COAST — The preschool at the Emanuel Episcopal Church has seen a "death and resurrection" in 2020, according to the Rev. Patti Hale, the Parish's priest-in-charge.

"It's not what we were imagining, but we're thrilled," Hale said. "2020 is not how any of us imagined it would be."

The preschool at Hale's church operated for 18 years, serving as many as 42 students a year with early learning programs. But during the pandemic, church leadership realized that unemployment expenses made the preschool too financially unstable to continue.

Parishioners mourned the loss of the preschool — but new state funding and a partnership with the Coos Bay School District has given the school a chance to stay open in a different form.

"It was very providential that the school district was looking for a place," Hale said.

That's because at the same time as the church had to close its preschool doors, the district received state funding for 18 no-cost preschool spots for underserved families. But the new slots are just a drop in the bucket, experts say, calling the South Coast a "childcare desert."

The South Coast Regional Early Learning Hub, which coordinates the expansion of early learning programs in Coos, Curry and coastal Douglas counties, estimates that only 27% of the region's infants and toddlers have access to childcare. That number is even lower in some areas, like Reedsport and Port Orford and Langlois.

The state's Preschool Promise program, which will fund the new school district spots, is bringing over $1 million in funds to the South Coast for 67 new spots. That pales in comparison to the the nearly 1,400 three- to five-year-olds the Hub says lack access to care.

What's more, Hub Director Sara Stephens says at least seven childcare providers in the region have had to shut their doors because of COVID-19's economic impacts.

"I think that the pandemic has really created more inequities for families that are struggling," Stephens said.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where the school district's program will start on Oct. 12, is one example of those providers.

"It became really clear that we financially were not going to be able to reopen (after COVID-19 restrictions lifted)," Hale said. "It's not a money-making kind of thing. It's benevolent."

The church had tried to keep the preschool afloat, even going so far as to register a nonprofit to modify how unemployment expenses would be covered, Hale said. But in the end, the numbers just didn't add up.

Now, the same classroom will be filled with the district's new spots, limited to "underserved" populations like families who make less than double the poverty level or foster families.

"This has been something that we have wanted for so long in Coos Bay," said Carli Ainsworth, assistant principal at the Eastside School. "There is a need in our community and our county."

The program will be something of a partnership: The church will provide the ready-to-use preschool classroom, and the district will provide the secular education.

Ainsworth will oversee the administration of the new program — and has first-hand knowledge with the lack of spots. She was a kindergarten teacher prior to moving into school administration.

"Research shows that kids who are exposed to those early learning opportunities are more successful," Ainsworth said. "When they get over into a kindergarten classroom, they have some of these skills to problem solve."

The program will be free for families, and will use curriculum that Ainsworth says will be a "bridge" for students on their way to district kindergarten.

Stephens' Hub handles the application process — and she recommends families apply for a spot as soon as possible. With several programs across the region, Stephens said families have some options of the type of program they want.

"Our goal is really to put family choice first," she said.

The application is available on the Hub's website, at www.screlhub.com/apply-for-prek, as is more information about eligibility requirements. Anyone in Oregon looking for childcare can call or text 211 for options.

Even though the 67 spots are just a drop in the bucket and subject to the challenges of the COVID economy, Stephens says the state funding is a step in a better direction. Her goal: universal pre-kindergarten.

Reporter Zack Demars can be reached at worldnews3@countrymedia.net.

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