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City Desk

As daycares close, employers and agencies create stop-gap solutions for essential workers


By Amanda Eggert 3 mins ago

BOZEMAN — More than 160,000 K-12 Montana students suddenly lost their regular source of daytime supervision last week when schools statewide closed. You might think the COVID-19-prompted closures would be a boon to childcare providers. It appears you’d be wrong. 

Due to a combination of factors, including newly remote-working parents removing their children from daycare to watch them at home and older and immune-compromised childcare providers shuttering to protect their health, many Montana childcare providers are closing. At the same time, municipalities and large employers are developing stop-gap solutions to meet the needs of essential employees who continue to go to work.

Resource and referral agency Child Care Connections has been “outstandingly” busy fielding calls from the childcare providers it works with, according to provider services coordinator and Helena operations manager Brandi Thomas. She said providers want to know two things: whether they should stay open, and whether they can continue to charge families for contracted childcare if parents stop bringing their children.   

In reference to the former, Child Care Connections has adopted guidelines from Child Care Aware of America, strongly urging providers to consider closing to help limit the spread of COVID-19 unless they’re serving families with essential workers. 

In a March 24 letter, Child Care Connections Executive Director Jane Arntzen Schumacher laid out a 15-point checklist to help providers make that decision and outline recommended protocols for those that stay open, including Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive that parents avoid placing children for care with grandparents, family members, friends, providers over the age of 60, or immunocompromised persons.

Many providers don’t have a choice but to close, given the drop in demand.

“In our six-county region, we have right around 200 providers, and the last time I looked, we had about 60 that were closed,” Thomas said on Tuesday, March 24. “People pulling their kids out [of childcare] has definitely affected a good share of them.”

“I’m pretty much on edge all of the time. I’m scared I’m going to bring home some kind of illness to my family.”

—Kalispell parent and health care worker Emily Dempsey

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesman Jon Ebelt wrote in an email to Montana Free Press that DPHHS is monitoring childcare closures and recommending that individual providers decide on the best course of action.

“Local communities know best how to keep their residents safe while providing essential services within the community. Allowing childcares to stay open if they are able and want to is a good solution for Montana communities, certainly to support those first responders and healthcare providers, but also grocery story [workers], child [protection] specialists and others,” Ebelt wrote.

Ebert wrote that DPHHS is exploring “many policy options” to provide financial relief to impacted childcare businesses, and added that providers should connect with resources available through the U.S. Small Business Administration.

DPHHS is advising providers to follow CDC guidelines and local public health guidance for social distancing and sanitary and hygiene measures. For many providers, that includes taking children’s temperatures when their arrive and turning away kids who have a fever or cough, emphasizing hand washing, stepping up facility sanitization regimens, establishing a drop-off zone to separate parents from the daycare’s charges, and limiting groups of children and caretakers to 10 or fewer.  

Townsend childcare provider Amanda Hazlett rents the basement of a community center in Townsend (population 2,045) for her business, which she runs with assistance from MyVillage, a startup that helps parents open and operate early childhood education programs. Normally Hazlett has a full schedule — her roster is booked through May of 2021 — but COVID-19 has brought her business to a crawl. 

There are 23 children enrolled in the program Hazlett runs with a staff member, though they care for no more than 12 children at any one time. As of March 18, her daily count was down to four kids, or five counting Hazlett’s daughter. 

She said many of the parents of her enrolled kids are teachers who are staying home with their kids now that schools are closed. Other parents are afraid to send their kids out of the house right now, she said.

Hazlett said she’s worried about the financial strain created by COVID-19 closures, both personally and societally. “My husband’s a teacher, so we’re not well-off. We love working with kids and we like making a difference, but we don’t have a plan B,” she said. “The financial fallout and the panic-caused problems could [last] much longer than the virus.”

Hazlett said she has found some reassurance in MyVillage’s approach to address supply and demand issues around COVID-19. The Bozeman-based business, which currently works with about 60 programs in Montana and Colorado, and is in the process of onboarding another 70, has opened access to emergency grant funding for businesses that have been impacted. The goal is to minimize disruptions to educators’ incomes and help parents manage costs related to COVID-19-related exposure or absence.



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