For many of Med City’s essential workers, at-home learning begins in limbo

The Jensen Family
Erin and David Jensen pose with their children, Nora (10), Elizabeth (9) and Dawson (7) in Rochester, Minn., last week. Neither of the Jensens have a job that can be done from home, so they've enrolled their children in a program at a local gym.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Rochester is a city filled with essential workers who keep the home of Mayo Clinic humming.

But as the city's public schools reopen under a hybrid model Wednesday — in which elementary school students will be learning in-person twice a week, and in distance learning the rest of the week — more than 360 school-age children are still on the district's waiting list for essential-worker child care, creating an impossible situation for the city's many parents and caregivers who can't work from home.

The Rochester district's shortage exposes long-standing challenges in Minnesota's child care system — and shows just how hard it is for the economy to be open, when schools aren't.

"It was like trying to buy tickets to a Prince concert,” Andrew Norrie said. His daughter is an elementary student in the city’s public schools. He wasn’t able to secure a spot for her in the district’s essential worker child care program this fall.

“They were just all gone,” he said. “Instantly."

Norrie was surprised. His wife is helping with the region's COVID-19 testing response, and the state has promised that essential workers like her would be able to get school-based care for their kids while they're at work.

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Still, Norrie said, his family is lucky. He is a real estate agent, so he can shuffle his schedule to make sure he's home when his daughter is there for her distance-learning days.

"That's not the case for the majority of people in town,” he said. “I think about my wife's best friend, who is a single mother. What's she going to do? She has zero options."

In a city where so many people are considered essential workers — doctors and nurses, law enforcement, teachers and people working in the service industry tied to Mayo Clinic's patients and visitors — child care has been strained by demand.

That's left parents who have been unable to secure a spot in the district's school-day child care program scrambling to prepare for days where they have to be at work.

"There's no great answer to this,” said Amy Eich, who runs the school district’s community education — and child care — programs. “That's what makes the pandemic so difficult. It interferes with the normal ability to serve people with what they need."

Eich said roughly 280 elementary school students are enrolled in the district’s essential worker child care program, which provides a supervised place for students to stay on the school days when they’re scheduled to be distance learning. It will operate out of an empty middle school, and will be free during school hours.

The program is separate from the before- and after-school care programs the district already has in place.

But as school begins this week, several hundred students remain on its waiting list.

Eich said it all comes down to a labor shortage.

Students need to be spread out, which requires more staff than usual. But the college students who helped with the district's summer child care program are back in school. Paraprofessionals are back to their normal classroom jobs.

And that's a theme that was playing out, long before the pandemic.

Diane Benjamin is the communications director for Child Care Aware of Minnesota, an organization that works to increase the quality and availability of child care. The pandemic, she said, has exposed longstanding fissures statewide.

"We already had a system that was already under a lot of stress,” she said. “We have child care providers who were underpaid. We have child care that's not affordable to parents. We have areas of the state that have child care shortages."

Complicating matters in Rochester were some last-minute changes by the state to who qualifies for the program; after the district began enrolling students in mid-August, the state clarified that the district isn't required to provide care for families in which only one worker is considered essential.

While Rochester's shortage of essential worker child care is unusual, Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said these factors and a shortage of space to adequately social distance could cause problems for other districts if they move to a hybrid or distance-learning model.

Meanwhile, demand for essential worker child care is having a trickle-down effect on day care providers that typically take care of babies and preschoolers.

"Care providers typically have school-age kids, but before, they were there to play and to be cared for after school," said Julie Brock, who is executive director of Cradle to Career, an organization aimed at improving outcomes for kids in Rochester.

"Now, they're going to be there on these distance-learning days. There's this expectation for the provider to help the kids get logged in, take attendance, and be engaged in school," Brock said. "And that's really hard when you have infants and toddlers in your care."

Brock is helping coordinate with nonprofits in Rochester to fill the gaps in the school district's care program.

Among those groups is Hope Fuse, a youth mentoring program.

Executive director Manasseh Kambaki said that, back in May, he started thinking about shifting his mentorship program toward distance learning, knowing that so many parents in Rochester work in health care and can't be at home.

He's training more mentors now, with the hope that his nonprofit can assist up to up to 30 students with distance learning days starting in October.

"For kids whose parents can't be at home with them, or don't have any supervision, we're going to be geared toward pod learning here," Kambaki said.

An infusion of grant money will help the program remain free for Kambaki’s students. He's still looking for a space to house the program.

Meanwhile, other alternative programs are already available — but carry a price tag.

That includes a local gym’s pop-up distance learning site, where Erin and David Jensen are sending their three elementary school kids.

Erin is a nurse practitioner at Mayo Clinic, working in the hospital, and David is a community service officer for the Rochester Police Department. Neither of their jobs can be done from home.

The program they’ve enrolled their children in costs $180 per day for all three kids, and they plan to use it three days a week — for a full cost of about $1,100, just for September.

"It's not something we anticipated, especially for the whole school year. That could be $9,000," Erin Jensen said. "We're going to juggle some stuff around. We're not going to take a trip in October like we were going to."

David Jensen said he has more flexibility in his work schedule at work than his wife does — and he's considering asking for an unpaid leave of absence so he can be home with their children while they distance learn.

But the two of them are also concerned about their kids' mental health.

"I feel like they're getting shuffled right now,” Erin Jensen said. “The kids who have a stay-at-home parent or someone working from home have that consistency. I worry … what is this doing to them?”

Still, the Jensens consider themselves lucky because they were able to get a spot in the program.

There are still scores of parents who are starting this school year without a place for their kids to go when they distance learn. The school district says they're actively hiring more staff — but workers remain in short supply.

COVID-19 in Minnesota