Coronavirus Crisis Workers Need Child Care Help. These States Are Stepping Up.

“This is amazingly challenging,” one expert said.

As thousands of people across the country are testing positive for the coronavirus, many are shifting to remote work, while schools and day care centers are closing. For parents, this disruption can be a huge strain, forcing them to juggle child care and homeschooling with their jobs.

But perhaps nobody feels this pinch more than the crisis workers on the front lines of this pandemic.

Nurses, doctors, first responders, scientists and researchers are already stretched thin as demand increases to test and treat more patients and find a vaccine. This means working grueling shifts, all while being exposed to the very virus they’re trying to fight. Inevitably, some will get sick and need to quarantine themselves. All of this means that parents who are crisis workers need help with child care more than ever.

And it’s not just about doctors and nurses. It’s also the custodial and food staff, people making medical supplies and hand soap, as well as those shipping and delivering these vital supplies, along with child care providers themselves. All of these people are “part of the lifesaving process right now,” said Eli Fenichel, associate professor of bioeconomics and ecosystem management at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

According to an analysis released last week by Fenichel and a researcher at Colorado State University, nearly one-third of health care provider households need to care for children between the ages of three to 12. And 15% of these households do not have another partner or older child who can help with child care, according to the research, which hasn’t been peer-reviewed.

In a ”back of the envelope calculation based on the assumption that school closures could help stop the spread of the coronavirus by 15%, the researchers warn that if the number of health care workers on the job declines too dramatically because they need to stay home to care for their children, it could negate any benefit provided by school closures.

In Missouri, Katie Patel is shortening her maternity leave to go back to work as an urgent care nurse to fill in for a quarantined co-worker. Her husband, Neal Patel, is an ER physician who has been taking extra precautions after his shift to protect his family from the virus.
In Missouri, Katie Patel is shortening her maternity leave to go back to work as an urgent care nurse to fill in for a quarantined co-worker. Her husband, Neal Patel, is an ER physician who has been taking extra precautions after his shift to protect his family from the virus.
Whitney Curtis for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The idea of social distancing is to “flatten the curve” ― slowing the spread of infection to help ease the burden on hospitals so there isn’t a spike in demand for treatment. As part of this, some 95,000 public and private schools across 41 states have closed so far to help enforce social distancing. But it’s a tricky balance to strike.

“How we social distance also influences the hospital capacity line — as the concern for health care workers’ kids shows,” Fenichel told HuffPost. To be clear, social distancing is incredibly important, he emphasized, but “This is amazingly challenging.”

“We need to get to strategic social distancing fast,” he explained. “This will take coordination, leadership, accepting some risk, and hard decisions.”

Thankfully, some states are stepping in to provide much-needed relief.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order Tuesday allowing the Department of Job and Family Services to create temporary pandemic child care centers. This came after hospital officials in the state warned that the lack of child care for their employees was causing problems.

As of March 18, places such as churches, day care centers, and YMCA/YWCA organizations can apply for a free license to set themselves up as temporary child care centers. There will be no application fees and some requirements will be waived in order to get the centers up and running. The licenses will be valid “until the governor of Ohio rescinds the executive order.”

“Not only does it take a village, it takes a brilliant, humble, determined village.”

- Sara Lederman

And as schools and day cares shut their doors in Colorado ― where some 80,000 emergency workers have children under the age of eight ― Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has asked early childhood care centers to help provide emergency care for those who need it. To compensate, child care workers will be “paid an enhanced rate that recognizes their extra effort and commitment to serving our community in a time of need” according to a new website.

Emergency workers ― including all health care providers and staff, along with firefighters, police, EMTs, correctional officers, and those working at long-term care or mental health care facilities ― can submit their child care needs on the website. They will then be matched with an available child care center.

In Massachusetts, where day care centers are now closed, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker announced a provision to allow the centers to create free childcare “hubs” in their facilities for those workers who most need it.

Meanwhile, the city of San Francisco announced Monday that it would be using public libraries and recreation facilities as emergency child care centers for health care workers as well as low-income families on the Recreation & Parks Management Scholarship list.

Two states ― Minnesota and Vermont ― have also taken steps to broaden who is considered an “emergency worker” to include grocery store clerks. This means these workers will now be able to qualify for free child care.

Members of a supermarket in Belgium disinfect a trolley to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Members of a supermarket in Belgium disinfect a trolley to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images

Several grassroots efforts are also beginning to pop up around the country.

In Michigan, Metro Health Hospital, part of the University of Michigan, announced it would offer free child care services to its 3,100 employees, including contracted staff such as those working in food services.

And after the University of Minnesota Medical School moved its classes online and canceled clinical rotations, a group of medical students launched on Wednesday what they call MN CovidSitters. The voluntary initiative seeks to help health care workers, including kitchen staff, janitors and administrators, with everything from child care and pet care to running grocery or pharmacy errands.

During the short time since it launched, the effort has gone global. The students are now working with over 20 other groups, including in the U.K. and Canada to help start similar initiatives. They have a Google drive with resources to get started, including tips on how to overcome any roadblocks.

“One of the things that I hear my medical school peers ask a lot is, ‘How can I help?’” Sara Lederman, a second-year medical student told CNN. “With the COVID-19 outbreak, that question felt not only more relevant, but more urgent. And not only does it take a village, but it takes a brilliant, humble, determined village.”

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