Child care becomes dilemma as mandatory school closures loom

“We already have a crisis in Washington state with a shortage of child care,” said one daycare owner.

EVERETT — Parents are scrambling to scrape together eleventh-hour child care plans, and day cares are bracing for a wave of new customers in the wake of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to shutter schools for six weeks.

All public and private schools in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties must close through April 24, the governor announced at a news conference in Olympia on Thursday. On Friday he expanded the mandate, ordering that all K-12 schools across the state close for six weeks.

Classes must cease no later than Tuesday, and the closures could eventually be extended.

“Two weeks we can figure out, that’s fine. But six? Holy profanities. That’s such a long time,” said Everett mother Justine Walker-Melum, whose 11-year-old daughter attends Garfield Elementary School.

She’ll likely have to bring her daughter to work, and her husband might need to work from home. She’ll be leaning on friends who are nannies, too, she said.

“It’s always taken a village,” Walker-Melum said. “But we’re going to have to band together even more and figure it out.”

The unprecedented move is a response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened hundreds and killed more than 35 statewide.

School districts are developing plans to provide opportunities for child care on some campuses. Officials of those reached Friday said they were still working on details.

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal told reporters the intent is not for all students to wind up back on campus. The focus, he said, is on serving the state’s youngest students and children of health care workers and first responders.

Anyone who doesn’t work in those fields and still needs child care should reach out to their school district directly, according to Reykdal’s office.

The largest provider of before- and after-school care in the county, the YMCA, will offer all-day child care during the closures in seven of the county’s school districts. Most of those programs are expected to take place in school facilities, though some will be at the organization’s local branches, said Jennifer Willows, senior vice president and chief development officer for the YMCA of Snohomish County.

The Boys & Girls Club of Snohomish County, which provides before- and after-school care to roughly 5,500 children daily across multiple sites, is also offering full-day child care during the school closures.

“We’re finding that families are in a bind. They don’t have anywhere else to take their kids and they need to go to work,” said Marci Volmer, chief operating officer for the Boys & Girls Club of Snohomish County.

Child care rates will be half of what they usually are to curb the impact on families during the school closures, according to a Friday notice from the organization. Most clubs have space for more kids, and parents should contact their local club for more information, the notice says.

“We want people to be safe, but we also understand that we need to support families and kids, and we’re doing whatever it takes to make that happen,” Volmer said. “Being flexible and being open is the first step.”

All Head Start and Early Head Start groups, which serve children from birth through preschool, are canceled through April 24, starting Monday. The state-funded program’s absence could add more demand for day care programs.

“We already have a crisis in Washington state with a shortage of child care,” said Julie Bliven, owner and director of Country Dawn Preschool & Child Care in Lake Stevens.

While some day cares have faced an influx of school-age children, others have seen parents temporarily pull their children’s enrollment amid coronavirus concerns.

“It’s just going to take one confirmed case, and we’re going to be closed for 14 days, which is scary,” Bliven said. “That puts over 200 families out of child care.”

Bliven’s day care and others across the county are taking preventative measures to slow the spread of infection, including ramping up cleaning and sanitation routines and having parents drop their children off at the door instead of inside classrooms.

Kovi Altamirano, director of Daffodils Preschool & Afterschool, said she’s asked some of her older employees to temporarily not come to work to protect them from the outbreak. Her staff of 19, which cares for roughly 50 to 60 children on any given day, is down to 15, she said.

“We’re doing whatever we can to make sure we remain healthy,” Altamirano said. “All of our kids are being monitored for fever. Everyone is washing their hands upon entry.”

Teresa Max, owner of Second Home Child Care in north Everett, remains concerned about children spreading coronavirus, despite all the precautions being taken by her day care and other facilities.

“Right now, we have all kinds of sick kids,” she said. “Who’s to say that none of them have it and that day cares aren’t passing it around, too, and we just don’t know it?”

She runs one of only a handful of day cares in north Everett, she said.

“There’s not very many day cares to begin with,” Max said. “People in this area — they’re going to struggle finding child care,” she said.

Some teenagers at local high schools have seen the mandatory closures as an opportunity to earn some extra cash by babysitting.

Audrey Wilkinson, a junior at Edmonds-Woodway High School, has a job lined up for this week.

When Wilkinson got wind of Inslee’s Thursday order, she thought of local families who rely on schools for food and child care.

“I want to do something to help these folks,” Wilkinson said. “We are in a time of pretty intense need. And genuinely, one of my passions is working with kids.”

Herald reporters Jerry Cornfield and Julia-Grace Sanders contributed.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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