Health care professionals and first responders are facing the strain of fighting the coronavirus at work while scrambling to arrange for child care at home. According to a new study, the US health care system appears disproportionately prone to labor shortages from school closures.
In Sarasota County, a dozen public and nonprofit partners have teamed up to open safe spaces for the children of essential workers.
Soon after Florida schools shifted to virtual learning and private day care operators began to close, leaders at Sarasota Memorial Hospital sent a child care survey to their 7,000 employees to determine what challenges working parents were facing.
“We have a fairly young workforce,” said Carol Ann Kalish, Chief Legal Officer at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. “Both are frontline clinical providers and also the folks behind the scenes, the environmental services workers and our food and nutrition staff. We recognized that they were likely folks that took advantage of school programs. We also recognized that the coronavirus wasn't just creating challenges here within the hospital, but for our employees outside of the hospital because of school and day care closures.”
The survey results revealed the need for the hospital to get ahead of the child care issue so parents could focus on work. At the same time, Kalish says she also heard similar concerns from colleagues at various other agencies.
"I was looking at this from my perspective as a leader in the health care system but I also knew that there were other essential workforce members out there who were going to have the same challenges, folks like the sheriff's department and the police department."
Soon, a task force was created to identify how to open safe and regulated child care facilities. The Florida Department of Health, Sarasota County Emergency Management, Sarasota County Schools and others were among those who part of the conversation.
Next, the nonprofit Barancik Foundation stepped in to pull together some of the child care providers.
“We knew we were in a position with our relationships in the community to figure out a child care solution for our essential personnel,” said Kelly Romanoff of the Barancik Foundation. "They are giving so much for public health and safety right now and we can give them peace of mind and security for their children.”
The plan helped create close to 600 slots for essential health and public safety personnel at three nonprofit sites in Sarasota County: The SKY Family YMCA, The Florida Center and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County.
"I think it’s one of those things that could be an afterthought,” said Gene Jones president and CEO of The SKY Family YMCA about child care for essential workers.
“You know we're all thinking about the health care workers and what they're doing on the frontline as well as the other first responders but how can they provide those services if they have a child at home," he said.
So far, the SKY Family YMCA is taking care of about 400 children at eight of their facilities. Each is following CDC guidelines as well as other safety measures.
“We're doing temperature checks,” said Jones. “We're not allowing the parents to come into the facility unless there's an emergency or, you know, for infants. In addition we have smaller group sizes and we are keeping the groups separated. They're not using the same materials, for instance, each child would have their own scissors if we're doing an arts and crafts project."
Social distancing and safety measures are also in place at the Lee Wetherington Boys & Girls Club in Sarasota.
Kids are kept in groups of nine children maximum, with one staff member and staff and kids are all wearing some form of personal protective gear.
“Our number one goal is to keep these children and families safe,” said Bill Sadlo, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County. “Our mission is to always be there for the needs of our families and I think now more than ever, these families need us. If we can make sure their children are safe while they're trying to keep the rest of us safe, it's a win-win for our organization, the families and the community as a whole.”
According to the Center for American Progress, around 28% of Florida's health care workforce have kids that are too young to be left home alone.
Kelly Romanoff of the Barancik Foundation says moving forward-- child care must be part of emergency planning. Part of that equation is making sure day care providers stay afloat. The Sarasota County Commission last week approved a new emergency loan program for small businesses including child care facilities.
“We understand that economic recovery is dependent upon quality child care and our public education system,” said Romanoff.
"When life gets back on track, employees will need to be out at their offices in the community doing their work, and their kids will need to be provided with safe care. So the County Commission giving loans to child care centers is a fantastic leadership example."
Late last week, Florida's Office of Early Learning also made subsidizes available for children under the age of five whose parents are on the Governor’s list of essential businesses.
As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the United States, the public health response will be to slow its transmission so that the health care system—and its workers are not overwhelmed. Taking care of their kids is one way to ensure that can happen.
“We just want to say we have your back,” said Romanoff. "As a community, we'll get through this."
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