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Child care changing in the age of COVID-19

Kym Weathers has worked in child care for 23 years. She's seen parents come to or depart from day care for all sorts of reasons.

"You have a couple job losses here and there," said Weathers, who owns both 123 All About Me day care centers in Central Point. The wave of disruption from an expected six-week closure of public schools across Oregon, however, has opened an unprecedented chapter in her professional handbook.

"I know a lot of people thought day cares should be closed too," she said. "But they’re not seeing the bigger picture."

Weathers immediately began making calls to her families last week when the initial school closure was announced. She asked the ones with a parent able to stay home to free up what spots they could for other children — those whose parents would need to stay at work as closures and cancellations increased and social distancing became the norm.

“That was my first concern,” Weathers said. “Oh, no, where are these people going to put their kids?”

On the third day of what’s been expanded to a six-week closure of Oregon K-12 school systems, the Oregon Department of Education’s Early Learning Division announced temporary changes to several rules guiding child care facilities. The changes are meant to expand the availability of child care to parents working jobs considered essential during the COVID-19 response — from health care workers to first-responders and grocery store employees.

“It’s just vital,” said Bethany Pitts, afterschool director for the Rogue Valley Family YMCA. Both it and the Ashland Y are offering emergency child care to the parents working essential jobs, as well as families considered to be vulnerable with schools closed, for as long as is needed.

Not only is that care available to a limited group of people, it’s also operating under a vastly different set of restrictions than traditional child care. Safety and health of both children and staff running the locations are centered in the changes to activities, the temperature checks before entry and the ramped-up sanitation.

“This is an emergency child care plan,” said Brad Russell, CEO and executive director of the Rogue Valley Family Y. “This is not traditional child care.”

The Early Learning Division, which issues guidance and oversight of child care centers, also updated its directions Tuesday for providers to minimize chances of infection. They included keeping children in small groups, in accordance with social distancing guidelines, mandating temperature checks below 100.4 degrees for permissible entry, and increasing access to soap, water and hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for staff and kids.

Some day care providers have said maintaining access to cleaning supplies has been one of their main challenges during the closure.

“I sympathize with Cinderella and Snow White,” said Shauna Johnson, who runs a licensed day care out of her Medford home. She cares for six children from kindergarten age through third grade, and said she’s been running her dishwasher and her laundry machine more often for the past few weeks.

Johnson said she had to search hard for bleach to keep her toys and supplies sanitized earlier in the week.

“We always clean and disinfect daily,” she said. “I need it for my business.”

Small Steps Day Care, however, needed to solicit help from parents when it almost ran out of disinfectant wipes, said Jessie Vargas, who brings her 4-year-old daughter there each week.

The day care now has about a month’s supply of wipes, Vargas said, but attendance has been lower.

“The threat of the virus is becoming more real by the day,” she said in an email Wednesday, adding that Small Steps is now staying open on a week-to-week basis.

Other care providers are fielding requests from parents newly searching for care for their kids who can no longer attend school. Johnson said she had seen an uptick, while Weathers said the number was about the usual.

The Early Learning Division also announced Tuesday that it would begin expediting both mandatory training for child care and initiating an emergency protocol for background checks. It will also consider exemptions for existing facilities to expand their sizes without altering their licenses — those will be handled case by case, a news release said.

The purpose of each of those initiatives is to enable greater options for child care.

At the Y, Pitts and Russell are working with school districts to examine their capacity to take on more families. Wednesday, staff cared for 25 children across seven locations in four school districts, with 13 more children between the ages of 3 and 6 at the main facility.

“The hospitals are calling us,” Russell said. “And they’re saying, keep this going. And I’m like, ‘OK, well, yes. We will.’”

School district officials have been in contact with ODE officials about the possibility of contributing staff who can help assist with the Y’s emergency child care.

Families are asked to contribute to cover the costs of their child care if possible, Russell said, but as an emergency initiative, payment isn’t mandatory. The program will need extra financial support to be able to continue and grow as the definitions for qualifying families are expanded to include more professions.

Those interested in contributing can do so online at https://rvymca.org/. To learn more about whether your family qualifies for care, call Pitts at 541-772-6295, ext. 114, or email bpitts@rvymca.org.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneThe Medford YMCA is offering emergency day care during this time of school closures.