States scramble to arrange child care for essential workers

A nurse and a single mother, Becca Rosselli had a choice to make when her daughter's school and care programs closed for the coronavirus outbreak. She could take a leave of absence from the hospital, or leave her 6-year-old with her mother, who has a condition that could make her vulnerable to the disease.

Rosselli, 28, found a child care program for essential workers but it wasn't open late enough to fit her schedule with 12-hour shifts. So for now, her daughter is staying with the grandmother.

"A lot of people are very scared to help them with babysitting because of the virus, everyone's very careful about not wanting to get infected," said Rosselli, who lives in Lockport, New York. "Because we're on the front lines, we're going to be the ones directly exposed and possibly taking care of these cases and dealing with it up front."

With schools and many day care centers closed, states, local governments and philanthropists are scrambling to free up parents who are medical workers, emergency responders and others needed on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.

The New York City schools chief has put out a call for staff to volunteer at emergency child care centers. A hedge fund billionaire in Connecticut has pledged $3 million toward care for the children of hospital workers. And in Minnesota, a group of volunteer nursing students has set up a rotation to watch the children of health care workers.

At least 3.5 million children of health care workers in the nation's most populated areas could eventually need emergency child care as the crisis intensifies, according to an analysis of U.S. Census survey data by researchers at Colorado State University and Yale University.

"When doctors and ICU nurses and other important workers don't have child care, people may die," said Walt Gilliam, a child psychiatry and psychology professor at Yale who said federal guidance and coordination on child care is sorely needed. "What's happening right now is the local folks are trying to figure it out on their own without any resources."

Elected officials in a growing number of states — from hard-hit New York, Washington and California to Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado and Vermont — have promised to find ways to provide child care for front-line workers.

As they prepare for a surge in need, states including New York, Michigan, Delaware and Maryland have suspended some child care regulations, like zoning rules or educational requirements. Missouri has exempted child care providers from rules about social distancing and allowed them to increase their capacity by a third.

Some states including Ohio are granting emergency child care licenses to providers that previously weren't licensed for child care. But National Association for the Education of Young Children CEO Rhian Allvin said she's concerned over a trend of states relaxing regulations meant to protect children.

"If there's ever a time for the health and safety of children to be considered, it is now," she said.

In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has temporarily closed all child and family care centers through April except for hundreds chosen to be part of a program providing free care for families with no other options.

The needs are steep not only for medical professionals but also parents who are stocking grocery store shelves, running power plants and other essential jobs. And even in areas where day care centers have not been closed or restricted by governments, some say they cannot afford to keep their doors open for smaller numbers of children.

"We have historically not had the infrastructure and supply of child care available to families at an affordable cost prior to the pandemic," said Lynette Fraga, executive director of advocacy group Child Care Aware of America. For essential workers, she said: "The inability to find that care is exacerbated as the result of the times we find ourselves in."

In New York City, the center of the outbreak in the United States, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza called on school staff to volunteer at emergency child care centers serving uniformed, transit, health care and other essential workers this week.

"I don't ask this lightly, and I know this is a time of profound personal challenge for all of us," Carranza said. "But we need you."

The city this week began caring for students at 93 emergency care centers, where school volunteers and local community providers serve hot meals and offer instruction to classes of less than nine students. Officials expected to serve tens of thousands of children, but Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday that attendance so far has been lower than expected. Some of the centers will likely be closed, he said, but they could be reopened if there is a surge in demand.

Most states have yet to fully roll-out emergency child care plans — even as children enter their second or third weeks without schools and governors extend school closures. And just who counts as an "essential" worker varies vastly from state to state, leaving grocery store and bank workers adrift.

Some of the nation's largest health systems, including Northwell Health in New York, are providing free child care to employees but have still struggled to find services as more providers close. "We've had to be very aggressive finding new options for our employers," Northwell Health Chief Rewards Officer Gregg Nevola said.

Newly signed federal legislation includes $3.5 billion in additional child care funding to states through the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Child care advocates say it's a good start, but more money is needed in the next stimulus package to provide hazard pay for child care workers and ensure there's a child care system when the pandemic ends.

In Connecticut, hedgefund founder Ray Dalio and wife Barbara Dalio's foundation is donating $3 million to provide eight weeks of care for over 1,000 children of hospital workers. "To us, they are heroes," Barbara Dalio stated.

A handful of states including Arizona, Minnesota and Rhode Island and dozens of communities from Atlanta, Georgia, to Richmond, Virginia, to Sacramento, are working with nonprofits including the YMCA and YWCA to offer child care for front line workers.

"I worry how long we will be able to sustain this because the truth of the matter is, revenues are drying up," said YWCA USA CEO Alejandra Castillo.

In Minneapolis, a group of nursing students are providing free child care for health care workers from janitors to physicians and say they've served over 120 families who have struggled to find child care elsewhere.

"For people whose daycares and schools closed, it was kind of an overnight thing," said University of Minnesota Medical School student Brianna Engelson, who helps lead the volunteer effort. "Once this happens, people need to go to work the next day."