Diana Montoya’s two elementary school-aged sons laughed and screamed as they chased a staff member around the Wallingford Boys & Girls Club courtyard, ignoring their mother’s attempt to shepherd them home. 

It was the first day of Seattle Public Schools’ extended closure; Montoya brought the boys to the club so they had a place to be while she worked her new job with a cleaning service.

“I really thank this place,” she said. “It’s very important that this place is open because I work all day. If the Boys & Girls Club closes for the coronavirus, it will be awful for me.”

Montoya’s family is one of the thousands around the state who have been seeking emergency child care since Gov. Jay Inslee announced a mandatory six-week school closure last week, part of Washington’s effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2. With libraries, community centers and other communal spaces also closed statewide, and gatherings of 50 or more prohibited, many parents have seen their options dwindle. 

Amid the confusion, and while shutting down almost every other industry, Inslee announced Monday that child care facilities will remain open.

“We’re keeping open pharmacies, child care and day care facilities,” Inslee said.

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With that guidance and the state’s directive that school districts help set up child care with elementary-school students in mind, child care providers are staying open. Late Monday,  a spokesperson from Public Health – Seattle & King County said in a statement that “child care centers are not considered a community or social event, so the order to avoid gatherings larger than 50 people does not apply to them.”

But some parents and care providers are concerned that their continuation contradicts Inslee’s and care providers’ guidance for social distancing, which recommends staying 6 feet away from others and having fewer than 10 people in a space.

“Social distancing is impossible in a preschool,” said Alyssa Kidd, who runs a half-day facility in northeast Tacoma. She said she and other providers are in a tough situation.

She wants the families who use her school to stay home and reduce the rate of infection. “But with families needing to work, I understand that they still need child care at this time. My personal dilemma is I want to close [my school] to flatten the curve, but I also want to help my community.”

With more than a million students out of school and parents who still need to work, state agencies are seeking more creative ways to care for Washington’s children. 

About 1.2 million students attend public and private K-12 schools in the state. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is recommending that middle and high school students stay home. That leaves nearly 505,000 K-5 students statewide who normally would be in school and might need care. That’s on top of the 463,000 children 4 and under. Some can stay with older siblings; others can’t. 

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In 2018, there were about 324,000 children under 6 whose parents were working, according to data from the Annie E Casey Foundation report “Kids Count.” More than 166,000 of those children were in licensed care facilities, Child Care Aware of Washington reported.   

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After the mandated school closures, Public Health – Seattle & King County officials issued guidance on Friday saying that since child care spaces are smaller than schools, they have “lower exposure and transmission risk” and the risk to young children is low. The research on transmission rates in children is unclear. Children can get the disease but they do not get as sick from it as adults.

The Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) encouraged child care providers and early learning centers to stay open and comply with the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on sanitation. 

“We must continue to provide care for economically and physically vulnerable children, children in foster care, support for families for whom telework and paid sick leave is not available, and ensuring that high-risk individuals continue to be protected — [that]  must all be addressed,” DCYF spokesperson Debra Johnson said in a statement.

The agency is also seeking creative ways to open and license new, safe child care options to increase capacity. 

A company called Weekdays is trying to fill the gap by pairing vetted in-home child care providers with nearby families. During the school closure, the company is waiving all fees and working with providers, such as parents, educators and nannies, to set up “home pods” of three or fewer children. Weekdays founder Shauna Causey said it’s the safest way to provide care given current coronavirus concerns. 

The company vets potential providers in two ways — using a federal database or a quicker background check — and lets parents choose the option they prefer. Some providers are licensed; others are license-exempt because of the duration of the services.

Other child care options will be provided by school districts. 

The state superintendent of schools has asked districts to prioritize the children of first responders and healthcare workers.

Some districts are partnering with community organizations. Lake Washington School District surveyed parents and will match them with providers who already run before- and after-school programs. Space in the program will be limited. 

Back at the Boys & Girls Club, things are changing day by day. Tré Beauchand, a senior team director, said the staff is developing activities to keep children entertained and engaged, including gym time, lessons focused on life skills, and reading time.

On Monday, following more guidance from the Governor, the Club decided to limit each site to a maximum capacity of 50 people.

“It’s stressful,” he said. “I think I put on a brave face for the kids but on the inside, I’m really kind of nervous.”

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