Many MN child care centers remain open, putting parents and workers in tough spot

The state has encouraged day care centers and preschools to keep looking after young ones, but owners say they need more support

Children sit around tables.
Children sit around tables at the St. Paul Midway YMCA Early Childhood Learning Center. Minnesota officials have encouraged day care centers and preschools to keep looking after young ones, but owners say they need more support.
Courtesy of the YMCA

Families across Minnesota are desperate to get back to a sense of normalcy as they navigate unprecedented routines amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, but one looming question for Minnesota is — what to do about child care.

Gov. Tim Walz ordered all schools to close for nearly two weeks to slow the spread of the virus, but state officials urged child care centers to remain open to help members of Minnesota’s workforce go about their regular jobs. Walz also named health care personnel and emergency responders “essential workers” who are eligible for all-day, district-based child care for their school-age children.

Some early childhood educators made the decision to close their centers anyway. Still, many remain open, which is a decision that’s been tough for some day care staff and parents worried about the risk of infection or spreading COVID-19.

Health officials say they now believe the disease has spread in community settings, which worries some child care educators as they continue to go to work and interact with families.

Children are not at a higher risk for COVID-19 than adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but they might present with mild symptoms similar to a cold or the flu. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that infected children typically aren’t as ill as adults and might not have symptoms at all.

Whether to keep day cares open or order them to close is a lose-lose situation: Close child care centers and you leave families that can’t telecommute unable to find care for their young ones. Stay open and risk spreading the disease further.

Heather Charmoli found herself in that predicament earlier this week.

The director of All Saints Child Care in Minnetonka decided to close her center immediately after she heard the statewide school closure announcement on Sunday.

Charmoli said the governor’s list of essential workers who qualify for child care leaves out many people who can’t work from home, like her staff.

“Preschool teachers and child care employees are not on that list. So, if my teachers need to stay home with an elementary-age child, that’s somebody else that’s not eligible to work for me,” she said. “That was something that maybe wasn’t taken into consideration fully when they made that list of essential workers. They want us to work, but they’re not giving us the support that we need to be able to run our programs.”

Charmoli added that she has staff members with asthma and other health concerns that would put them at a higher risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19, as well as others who care for older parents who don’t want to expose them to the disease.

So even without an order to close, she would’ve been left with near empty classrooms and little reason to stay open since families who send their children there have been able to care for their children at home, she said.

But not everyone is in a position to do that. The Y says it’s pivoting its resources to serve what they call critical workers, but it’s also trying to provide care for more families with preschool-age kids who are not guaranteed child care in the governor’s executive order.

The Y typically works in 54 locations to serve school-age kids before and after school. Now that the schools are shuttered, the number of centers is down to 10, as many families aren’t eligible for care.

The Y’s early child care centers are staying open — and they have 500 open spots for babies and preschool-age kids, said Stephanie Chauss, senior vice president of child care services for the Y.

Chauss said the Y is following guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health to implement social distancing whenever possible.

“We had only small groups on the playground. We didn’t cross classrooms over. Instead of sharing crayons, you got your own set of crayons,” she said.

Those who work in child care settings are more concerned, however, with the spread of COVID-19. Some centers aren’t able to practice social distancing, and without unemployment insurance — in which workers would receive benefits if the centers were to close — the staff is left with few options.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children released a statement Sunday, saying only a select few centers should remain open as long as schools are closed. The organization emphasized the importance of child care centers and asked states and federal governments for funding to support them.

“For programs that remain open to serve those who need it, they must be provided with a version of ‘hazardous duty’ pay, in which they are guaranteed additional funding to ensure they are able to pay substitutes,” the statement read. “They also need access to public funds for paid family and sick leave to cover staff that, in following the recommendations of public health personnel, have to take time off to maintain their own health or care for family members and limit the spread of the virus.”

Some home-based day care providers and babysitters have taken to social media to offer drop-in options for parents in a pinch.

Kimberly White is a stay-at-home mother of four who runs a home day care in Albert Lea, Minn. Because of state requirements, she’s able to care for only one other family at any time, so she’s currently watching a 5- and a 3-year-old to help a single mother who works in a health care setting.

Even though that parent is eligible for school district care for her 5-year-old, she chose to keep her kids with White because of her flexibility and longer hours.

White said she’d like to help out more, but her own son has asthma, and he can easily get sick from the common cold.

“If there was a family that was in dire need, I would try to help them if I could,” she said. “It would just be temporary, and it would be based on maybe what their profession is because I don’t know if I’d want to take on another family from the medical field.”

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