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‘I don’t know what we’d do without it’: How school-based child care for emergency workers has rolled out in Minnesota

Districts responded quickly to the governor’s directive to pull together on-site child care for emergency workers, in an effort to help stem a ripple effect that school closures could have on the state’s ability to respond to COVID-19.  

Marc Anders picking up his two elementary-aged children
Marc Anders picking up his two elementary-aged children from the on-site child care set up at the charter school they attend.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

All public schools in Minnesota are closed through the end of next week, per an executive order announced by Gov. Tim Walz last Sunday. 

But Quinn, 11, and Daphne, 8, are still spending their days at Nova Classical Academy, the charter school they attend in St. Paul, while their parents continue to report to work. Their mother, Dana Demaster, works in human services for Ramsey County and her husband, Marc Anders, works as a hospice nurse in St. Paul. 

After the school closure announcement, the school their family relies on established a free, on-site child care service that, as of Wednesday, is serving about a dozen children of emergency workers. Walz gave this directive — to pull together on-site child care for emergency workers — to schools Sunday as well, in an effort to help stem a ripple effect that school closures could have on the state’s ability to respond to COVID-19.  

“I don’t know what we’d do without it,” Demaster said, noting their backup option — the kids’ grandmother — falls into a high-risk category and shouldn’t be leaving her house. 

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From the outset, health care workers, first responders, law enforcement personnel and other professionals deemed “critical to the State’s response to COVID-19” all qualified for these new school-based child care seats for their elementary-aged children (ages 12 and under) who would, under normal circumstances, be at school during the workday. 

State leaders have expanded that list to include “Essential Tier 2 Workers” — a category that includes educators, utility workers, food distribution workers and more — whenever possible. (Here’s a full listing of all qualifying workers.)

Brett Wedlund
Brett Wedlund
The directive states that schools must practice “hygiene and social distancing best practices” while providing this on-site child care. That includes avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between everyone, and increasing the frequency of hand-washing and sanitation measures. 

From there, school leaders had just a couple of days to identify qualifying families and put something in place — all in the midst of completely rethinking how to conduct lessons remotely, in the event that schools stay closed longer. 

At Nova, the shift in services went fairly smoothly, since the school already had a before- and after-school child care program in place, says Brett Wedlund, the school’s executive director. 

“Right now they’re very much in a self-containment mode,” he said.

‘It’s a stressful environment’

The St. Paul Public Schools district has established on-site child care centers for health care workers and emergency personnel at three separate locations: the Rondo Education Center, and at two of its elementary schools (L’Etoile du Nord lower campus and Horace Mann).

The program launched Wednesday and 225 kids are already enrolled, says Tony Walker, director of community education for the district. 

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They’ll continue to prioritize outreach to Tier 1 families as that count continues to grow, he says.

They have capacity for about 100 kids at each location; and they’re aiming to maintain a 5-to-1 child-to-adult ratio in each classroom, with licensed early education teachers in each classroom.

He and his team are listening in on the daily briefings provided by the Minnesota Department of Health and monitoring new guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well. 

They’ve already implemented a pretty meticulous protocol for child care operations. It includes a temperature check – of both adults and children — at the drop-off entrance, and an ID check, to verify that families qualify. 

“It’s a stressful environment when you walk into a new building, don’t know the classrooms you’re going to, who the staff are,” Walker said. “We’ve been really mindful of that.”

Once they pass a temp check, the kids go to an assigned classroom where they start their day with a hot lunch and some activities.

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
At Nova, the shift in services went fairly smoothly, since the school already had a before- and after-school child care program in place, says Brett Wedlund, the school’s executive director.
They go to the cafeteria for lunch, in staggered shifts, and come back to a classroom that’s been sanitized, again, while they were away. And they’re still getting outside to burn off some energy during the day, but the playground equipment is off-limits for now, says Walker. 

The kids “will tend to gravitate to one another,” he says. But staff are constantly reminding them to maintain a safe distance from one another. 

The Minneapolis Public Schools district also launched its emergency child care operations yesterday. At the start of the day, they had about 150 students spread among the six sites that are currently established. And they’re still accepting new applicants.

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The district is prepared to open more locations, if need be, to maintain proper social distancing, says Karen DeVet, chief operating officer for the district. For now, they have staff who normally provide before- and after-school child care services through the district coming in to cover these daytime hours; and the custodians in each building are keeping the spaces well sanitized. 

Even with the available staff and space, DeVet says making the shift in programming happen with just a couple of days’ notice required a “herculean effort.”

“Transitioning to child care versus an educational setting is not just a flip of the switch,” she said. 

Coming back from spring break, the Anoka-Hennepin school district will begin offering emergency child care Tier 1 workers on Monday, March 23. The district advertised availability to parents and guardians through emails and on social media, says Jim Skelly, a spokesperson for the district. 

So far, 420 students have enrolled in the program, he says. They’ll be spread out amongst 26 different sites. 

Filling a critical gap

Emergency child care services are delayed until next week in the Foley Public Schools district as well — but for a very different reason: Custodial staff needed extra time to conduct a deep clean of the entire school building (an elementary school, a secondary school, and an intermediate school all attached to one another) after discovering that an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 had entered the building.

Supt. Paul Neubauer
Supt. Paul Neubauer
“So we needed to clean and disinfect the entire district,” Superintendent Paul Neubauer said.  

They had started out the week intending to meet the governor’s directive — to open emergency child care services by Wednesday. But news of the COVID-19 exposure prompted a quick shutdown and a flurry of communication with concerned staff, parents and community members. From there, all cleaning efforts focused on getting the kitchen and meal-prep areas sanitized so that the district could get its food distribution service up and running by today. 

In preparing for on-site child care, Neubauer says they’re still waiting to collect results from an online survey sent this week to parents, to gauge demand. They have an assisted living facility located in Foley, and many residents commute to St. Cloud for health care jobs. 

We actually have more staff members who are interested in providing child care,  at this time, than we have children to provide care for,” he said Wednesday. “I think we’ll be able to provide a class size of a 2-to-1 or a 1-to-1 [ratio].” 

That doesn’t mean students won’t have an opportunity to interact with their peers on a daily basis, he adds. It’ll just take some creative thinking, on the part of staff members, to figure out what that could look like while “still maintaining distance apart.”

In the Willmar Public Schools district, school leaders spent Sunday afternoon putting together a revised child care application. Since the district already runs a before- and after-school program with dedicated classrooms, adding this extra service didn’t take much work. And, even before the governor added educators to the list of essential workers, they’d opened this new service to  their teachers and staff as well. 

On Tuesday, they had about 45 students spread across three sites, says Scott Wallner, the district’s community education director. By Wednesday afternoon, enrollment had grown to 65 students. They’re aiming for a ratio of anywhere from 10 to 15 students per adult. And they could serve a couple hundred if they needed to, he says. 

At the start of the month, he sent the school custodian to the local Walmart to purchase antiseptic wipes, hand sanitizer and other cleaning products for every classroom. All stocked up on cleaning supplies, he says the focus now is on “really pushing the hand washing and really working with kids to not touch their faces, mouths.” 

Vetting long-term solutions

Ahead of the governor’s directive, district leaders in Independent School District 728 — which serves Elk River, Otsego, Rogers and Zimmerman — began advertising daytime child care hours to both school employees and emergency health care workers with a fee attached. They dropped the fee once the governor and education commissioner indicated that “funds would continue to flow,” said superintendent Daniel Bittman. 

Supt. Daniel Bittman
Supt. Daniel Bittman
They rolled out these new child care services on Wednesday. They had about 200 students spread out across their school sites, with roughly a third qualifying as children of school employees.

Bittman says they’ve already been contacted by local day cares that are struggling or considering closure, and they’ve been able to accommodate many of their families. 

At this point, the district is primarily utilizing child care workers who are already employed through the district’s community education department. But Bittman says he’s already in communication with his paraprofessionals and their union leaders to build out daytime child care services. 

“We anticipate that as guidance and directives are provided from [the state Department of Education] and the governor’s office, as it relates to child care facilities, that that pressure may become more real,” he said. “At that time, we would be open to a conversation, to the best of our capability, to see how we can best support our community.”