As health care workers, first responders and grocery store employees slog through the coronavirus outbreak, area school districts are providing a reprieve from the stress of widespread school cancellations.
A number of area school districts have announced or are currently offering free child care for the young children of workers in critical positions. It’s tough work, managing social distance guidelines and the need to keep spaces disinfected with the usually grubby surfaces of a classroom.
But district officials and leaders in the child care industry say they’re striking that balance between safety and necessity.
“Our communities won’t survive without these essential workers, and they need child care to go to work,” Ross Hunter, director of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, said in a video message last week.
In his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order issued a week ago, Gov. Jay Inslee affirmed that child care providers can stay open to serve the children of essential workers or at-risk children. Yet across the state and in Vancouver, day cares and preschools have closed their doors out of concerns stemming from the virus.
Flood of calls
According to Child Care Aware of Washington, 890 child care programs, including centers, at-home facilities and before- and after-school programs across the state had closed as of Monday afternoon, or more than 16 percent of all facilities. Of those, 85 are located in Clark County.
Meanwhile, calls to the nonprofit’s hotline for families seeking child care doubled after Inslee’s announcement that schools were closing, spokeswoman Marcia Jacobs said.
“We’ve had to upgrade our phone system,” Jacobs said.
In that vacuum, Educational Service District 112 and other providers have continued to operate limited services, while school districts are establishing their own centers.
Evergreen Public Schools last week launched Camp Evergreen, which provides free child care and school work to the children of first responders and health care professionals at Crestline Elementary School.
“It’s not just babysitting,” district spokeswoman Gail Spolar said.
Spolar said the program is serving about 100 students, between 35 and 45 of whom are typically on-site. To maintain social distancing guidelines, no more than 10 people are allowed in rooms at any given time, and students are kept 6 feet apart. All students and staff have their temperatures checked as they’re heading into class, and staff “wipe constantly” with disinfectant, Spolar said.
The school district is tapping into its paraeducator workforce, as well as school administrators and secretaries to oversee the program.
Battle Ground Public Schools is also offering similar services at two of its primary schools, Captain Strong and Pleasant Valley, and is also taking steps to keep children separated and surfaces disinfected, district spokeswoman Rita Sanders said.
She added that the district is keeping students from different classrooms as separate as possible.
“Social distancing was a point of emphasis in the initial training,” Sanders said by email last week.
Vancouver Public Schools also started offering child care for critical workers on Monday in cooperation with ESD 112. Smaller districts including Ridgefield, Camas and Washougal are also offering child care or are slated to do so starting next week.
Jacobs with Child Care Aware, meanwhile, said the organization is providing services to child care providers in need of information, supplies or other resources. Families can contact the organization to find slots for their children, or donate to the organization to purchase hygiene products for facilities.
“The providers, a lot of them, they’re heroes too,” Jacobs said.