At a time when most of the state has retreated home for work and when schools have likewise turned their students out in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, working parents across the state have had to add makeshift childcare to their job duties. But for those who are on the frontlines of the pandemic, staying at home isn’t an option.

With Gov. Tim Walz’s March 15 executive order closing the state’s public schools from March 18 through at least March 27 came another directive: childcare for local emergency workers.

Shane Gardner, battalion commander with Long Lake Fire Department, is one of about 40 families in the Westonka area who relied on the emergency childcare put into place at Hilltop Primary in Minnetrista. Hilltop was one of a couple hundred Minnesota schools that rapidly set up such services for what the state has termed “critical workers” in light of the spread of COVID-19 and the coronoavirus.

“My first consideration was safety. The decision to close schools was the right thing to do,” said Gardner, who has two daughters, a third-grader and a preschooler, at Hilltop.

Gardner was the fire department’s scheduled duty officer March 18, the first day of statewide school closures and the first day that childcare was made available to critical workers through Walz’s mandate. Gardner said that so far, he’s only used the service while scheduled as duty officer.

In Walz’s order, Minnesota public school districts were asked to provide childcare for local firefighters, public health employees, EMS personnel and those who work in law enforcement, among others, referred to as “Tier 1” critical workers. The directive requires that districts provide childcare at a minimum to these families’ children under 12 who are enrolled in the district.

Westonka Schools, closed since March 16, two days before Walz’s order went into effect, extended its childcare service to emergency workers who have children enrolled at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic School, which also closed its doors March 16.

Ashley Tupper, who runs Westonka Schools’ childcare, called Adventure Club, said that about 40 families between Westonka and OLL qualified for the service under the Department of Education’s “Tier 1” designation of critical employees.

Tupper said that Westonka provided the childcare service, free to these families between March 18 and March 20, to 15 children that Wednesday, March 18; 12 that Thursday and eight that Friday, a dwindling number despite the district opening up the service to MDE’s list of “Tier 2” workers, which includes utility and public works personnel, those in telecom and food distribution employees.

“While our numbers have been low thus far, it is important that we are prepared moving forward as we know numbers will greatly increase after spring break,” said Tupper.

Though Walz’s original order goes only through March 27, MDE is recommending districts create emergency childcare plans that are sustainable for at least eight weeks. Districts are not required to provide care during their spring breaks or other scheduled non-school days.

But planning for eight weeks could prove a tall order.

“The guidelines change rapidly, so we’ll get one thing in place and then something like the Tier 1 and Tier 2 list came out that changed a one-page document to five pages,” said Tupper. “There was a lot of gray area in the beginning and there are continual moving parts.”

The hours that districts were required to provide care, whether lunches or transportation were also required, the type of employment verification needed for families to be able to use the service (and where to send that verification) as well as the type of registration required – all of these were in flux the first couple days, said Tupper.

Tupper said the district was able to quickly staff its childcare service with eight year-round preschool and school-age program supervisors and assistant supervisors, two additional support staff and four other full-time program staff.

“It’s honestly just about being flexible. I remind myself and my staff regularly about all that these emergency workers are doing in this time of crisis. Our goal is to provide their children with a safe place to go so they can continue to be the heroes the world needs right now,” she said.

Those efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Gardner, the duty officer who dropped his daughters off that first day, said the Westonka and Adventure Club staff were “true professionals.”

“The quick turnaround on gathering materials in the event this is extended – it was so well coordinated in a short amount of time,” he said.

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