In Bozeman, Greater Gallatin United Way is working with Gallatin County Emergency Management, the city of Bozeman, Gallatin Valley YMCA, and faith-based organizations to open temporary daycare facilities for essential workers. Credit: Amanda Eggert / MTFP

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 in the care of people who are immunocompromised or over 60.

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.

“During this unpredictable and scary time, it’s just so important to us to mobilize and meet their needs and bring some much-needed predictability,” said Erica Mackey, MyVillage’s co-founder and CEO. As of March 25, about four of the company’s educators had applied for the funding, and the company anticipates that number will grow.

On March 23, Hazlett closed her daycare due to continuing declines in demand. The next day she applied for emergency funding through MyVillage. 

ADAPTING TO MEET THE NEEDS OF ESSENTIAL WORKERS

Even as a drop in demand is pinching childcare providers, essential employees who can’t stay home are contributing a new demand for childcare options. Some Montana businesses and public agencies are developing creative approaches to ensure that those employees’ children have somewhere safe and structured to go while schools are closed.

Billings Clinic, one of the state’s largest employers with more than 4,200 employees, has been operating a childcare for essential health care workers out of Billings Public Library since Monday, March 16. It was initially for school-aged children only, but quickly expanded to include infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The library is currently closed to the public.

Billings Clinic will care for more than 50 kids on a given day at no charge to the families. (In keeping with the groups-of-fewer-than-10 recommendation, the kids are separated into small groups in the library’s expansive facility.) The ad-hoc daycare is staffed by Billings Clinic employees. Amberly Pahut, Billings Clinic’s senior director of philanthropy, said many daycare staff are parents or former teachers or camp counselors. These employees have been redirected from departments that are undergoing staffing reductions due to coronavirus-prompted safety measures.

“Every single person we called for help said, ‘yes, whatever we can do,’” Pahut said. “It’s completely restored my faith in humanity.”

In addition to serving the families of health care workers from Billings Clinic, St. Vincent’s Hospital, and Riverstone Health, the daycare is open to the families of first responders including firefighters, EMTs, and police officers. Organizers are working with DPHHS and Child Protective Services to provide care for children who come from difficult home situations. 

In Bozeman, Greater Gallatin United Way is working with Gallatin County Emergency Management, the city of Bozeman, Gallatin Valley YMCA, and faith-based organizations to open temporary daycare facilities for essential workers while schools are closed. Although the program is just getting off the ground — as of Tuesday, March 24, one facility of seven that are planned was fully operational — Greater Gallatin United Way will eventually have the ability to care for up to 144 children of essential workers in Gallatin and Madison counties, including firefighters, law enforcement officers, water and sewer district employees, and health care workers. Bozeman Health is surveying its staff for an estimate of need and is expected to provide Greater Gallatin United Way with a number soon.

“We’re ready to open more as soon as we hear of the need,” said Danica Jamison, president and CEO of Greater Gallatin United Way. “If there are employees who feel their work is essential and they need childcare, they should talk to their supervisors and organization heads and tell them in case their leads don’t know there is a public offering of childcare available.” Eventually, Greater Gallatin United Way hopes to expand the program to serve the families of grocery store employees, retail workers, gas station personnel and the like, Jamison said.

“Every single person we called for help said, ‘yes, whatever we can do.’ It’s completely restored my faith in humanity.”

—Amberly Pahut, senior director of philanthropy, Billings Clinic

It currently costs Greater Gallatin United Way about $70 per child per day to offer the service, and the organization is exploring funding options to bring down the cost for parents who can’t afford that fee. Parents have not yet been charged for the service.

United Way of Missoula County and the YMCA in Billings are also developing emergency childcare options. The Missoula effort is focused on ensuring that lack of childcare due to school and provider closures doesn’t affect staffing levels at Missoula’s two hospitals.

JUGGLING CHILDCARE AND REMOTE WORK

Kalispell residents Tanner and Emily Dempsey have been keeping their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and five-month-old son at home since their daycare closed last week. That has created a challenging work environment for Tanner, a policy and accreditation specialist with Western Montana Mental Health Center, and a less than ideal situation for his daughter, Sloane. 

Normally, the Dempseys limit Sloane’s TV time and keep her on a fairly structured routine. Since their daycare closed, they’ve been reluctantly putting her in front of the TV so Tanner can work remotely from home while his office is closed. (As an occupational therapist who works in a senior living community, Emily is considered an essential health care worker, and continues to report to work at Immanuel Lutheran Communities.)  Emily said they feel Sloane is responding negatively to the change — she’s become so enamored with the television that her potty training has regressed, for instance.

“I think [Sloane’s] definitely noticed the change in her routine,” Emily said. “She talks about wanting to go to school.” 

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Emily said Sloane doesn’t understand why she has to stay at home, and she’s not sure how to talk to her daughter about the coronavirus. 

“I’ve told her [we have to stay home] because of germs, and people are going to get sick. I kind of worry about that, because I don’t want to make her scared, but I don’t know how else to explain this to her.”

While Tanner said he’s trying to remain positive and calm while taking necessary precautions, Emily said she finds herself feeling anxious at work and at home. 

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

The Dempseys have been communicating with their former daycare about their situation, and Emily said that starting next week her provider plans to reopen on a limited basis for the Dempseys and one other local family with working parents.

That’s their plan in the near-term, but the adaptations they’ve made recently are prompting them to re-examine their long-term options. “It’s making us rethink the whole working full-time and sending your kids to childcare equation,” Emily said. They’re considering other work arrangements that might allow them to use daycare less frequently. 

There’s no definitive date when local and state governments will give parents like the Dempseys — and the childcare providers they rely upon — the green light to return to pre-COVID-19 normal. On Tuesday, March 24, Gov. Bullock extended Montana’s closure directive for schools, restaurants, bars, and other businesses including gyms, movie theatres, and casinos to April 10. Further extension of the closure is possible, depending on how the state fares in the coming weeks, Bullock said in the order.

Billings native Amand Eggert is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. She’s currently a freelance writer covering the environment, the impact of public policy, and what it means to live in the Mountain West in the 21st century. Contact Amanda at eggert.amanda@gmail.com.