Between March 13-20, 2020, the Bay Area’s largest early learning provider, Kidango’s daily operations drastically changed due to the COVID-19 crisis. The organization was forced to temporarily close down their 55 centers. In the aftermath, they have had to find new ways to continue to support the children and families they currently serve while beginning new efforts to open up emergency childcare centers that support the children of healthcare workers and first responders in Santa Clara and Alameda counties. By March 25, Kidango will have opened five emergency childcare centers with the possibility of opening more in the future. Early Edge California spoke with Kidango CEO Scott Moore to learn more about the organization’s current efforts to support families in the Bay Area.
EECA: Tell us what has happened at Kidango over the last few weeks with the developing situation around the Coronavirus.
Scott Moore: It sort of stopped us in our tracks to begin with – we experienced this crazy day where all the school districts in the bay area closed. A few of the school districts had closed earlier in the week, and then Friday, March 13th happened. I got a call early in the morning from one of the superintendents where we provide all of the preschool in their school district and she told us they were closing down.That’s when we knew we were going to have to look at that ourselves. So literally that day, we just closed down all 55 of our centers, and that’s a lot. We knew the huge impact that would have.
Since then it’s just been this ongoing rush to figure things out as things have changed and events require us to shift. The best way to describe it is that we’ve gone from serving thousands of low-income children in preschool and childcare to now figuring out how to serve thousands of low income children while they’re at home–with learning activities, supporting their parents, and providing meals–to also opening up emergency childcare centers for hundreds of families that we’ve never served before who are healthcare workers, first responders, and others who are on the frontlines of fighting this virus. It’s just all changed–everything in terms of what we do and how we do it–in a matter of a week.
From the Friday we closed to the Monday when we opened back up, we didn’t close our offices or nutrition services, we had to change from making family style meals served in big bowls and everyone serves themselves around tables in the preschool classroom to “grab and go” meals. Then figuring out how to give families a grab and go meal without creating contact that could spread the virus, or how to limit that. Just many pieces like that where we’re constantly figuring stuff out and making decisions very quickly and hoping that they’re the best decisions, then trying to improve on those once we get new advice around safety protocols or health procedures.
We’re trying to figure out how to engage staff as well. We have 600 staff, and many are at home without an organization-issued computer or phone or iPad. Trying to figure out to stay connected with them is one of our biggest challenges, too. We’re currently working on how to ensure our staff don’t feel cut off while at home, and also making them feel a part of all this great work we’re doing.
EECA: How are you connecting with your current families?
Scott Moore: We called all of our families. We started with our most vulnerable — our homeless families, our families that are part of the child welfare system, and then we just kept going from there. We were asking if they still needed childcare and if so, what kind. But sadly, the number one need we got from families was, “we need help filling out unemployment paperwork because we were just fired.” I know everyone understands the devastation this is wreaking on people and the economy but it’s real, and we’re going to feel it for sure.
If a family said to us, “we need diapers,” we have regional hubs where we provide our to-go meals, and we’ve just started bringing diapers, then cleaning supplies, and basic food staples, as supermarkets were running out and families didn’t have the ability to get these. Everyone pitched in and did what we could and now we’re starting to organize around it more purposefully.
We’re putting together a lot of online resources, so we’ve added Kidango at Home to our website. And that’s just the beginning. We also put together a physical packet of at-home materials for families so that when they came in to get their meals they could take that home.
But what we really want is to put together a significant learning kit, even with a mini library, which we’re aiming to give every family. We’re calling this our Kidango at Home Learning Kit and we’re working with a foundation on that. Every family will get books, games, learning activities and art materials because they’re stuck at home, and there’s not a lot to do. Certainly some of our families don’t have access to the internet. It can be stressful for parents even when you do have all of the materials and access, if you don’t, then it can be really stressful. We’re trying to ensure that every family has a set of stable of fun, engaging learning activities for their children at home.
Something else we’re creating right now, which will be up next week, is a support line. Our mental health clinicians, who typically do home visits or work in our classrooms, will be available by phone for any staff or family who are experiencing stress or trauma around this crisis, so that we can help them navigate through it and give them support.
EECA: When and why did you decide to start offering emergency childcare?
Scott Moore: When the shelter in place order came out (3/16/20), and all the schools had closed, the county of Santa Clara and First 5 Santa Clara reached out and said “help, what can you do?” Even when we closed our 55 sites, I knew that we’d be asked to step up and provide emergency childcare, because it was easy to see that was going to be a need.
A couple days later, the county of Alameda reached out for the same thing. And we’ve been working with those counties, and we have direct relationships with some hospitals, too, because we provide childcare to hospitals. So, we’ve been working with one of them.
To reach these new parents, Santa Clara county has communicated with a list of about 8,000 healthcare workers and first responders. A hotline has also been set up for this emergency childcare, and we’re working with nonprofit Healthier Kids Foundation whose team is taking the calls from those families and enrolling them. We’re focused on making sure we have everything we need and that staff are trained and that everybody is on the same page for when we actually open. This is definitely a partnership.
EECA: How did you start the process to create this emergency childcare service?
Scott Moore: The first question was, “are we going to have the staff?” So then we had to figure out how we encourage staff to do this. Because everyone is still being paid while our sites are closed, and we’re asking staff to volunteer. We didn’t want to require anyone to do it, as we didn’t think that was the right approach.
So we had to figure out hazard pay. That’s really where the funding for emergency childcare is important because staff are putting themselves at higher risk by working in these childcare centers with children of healthcare workers. So, it’s important that they not only understand that risk, but also that they’re compensated for that higher risk. We’re giving our teachers $20 an hour in hazard pay on top of their regular pay. We thought that was important, and fortunately our partners have been able to provide that level of funding.
We put in a lot of work to recruit these teachers. It was about having a lot of individual conversations and people were willing to step up. So far, about 100 of our staff have said they would like to work. The response has been fantastic. It’s really heartening to see people step and do what they can to help.
The other big question is some of the hire standards for emergency childcare are different from what we’ve been set up to do. Group sizes of 12 is one new requirement, and we have ratios that are smaller than we typically have. We normally have a ratio of 1:8 with preschoolers, and now it’s 1:6 because we have group sizes of 12.
Then there are the more practical applications of health procedures, such as making sure different teacher/children groups aren’t interacting. We don’t want children and teachers in one group around any of the other children and teachers in other groups. These are called “stable groups”, where potential interaction between different teacher/children groups is prevented. That’s very different and we have to make sure that this happens.
There’s also much more frequent and stringent sanitizing that happens both at the end of the day and then during the day. There are a lot of practices that we’re putting into place that require training such as wellness checks of children in the morning, and taking their temperatures which then brings up the need for ensuring we have enough thermometers.
The Public Health officials with the counties we’re working in have been very helpful and have communicated with other county staff that we’re working with about what needs to be done. Medical equipment has been supplied by counties and hospitals, and the state is now starting to get involved to begin to figure out how to help emergency childcare come online and what supplies these centers need. We’re also continually looking at other recommendations that are out there to try and figure out all the things we can do to protect people.
EECA: Are you partnering with any other agencies or anyone else?
Scott Moore: Along with the counties of Santa Clara and Alameda and local hospitals, other partners include Healthier Kids Foundation, who typically do health screenings, such as dental and vision, and will then ensure that kids who need any dental work done or need eyeglasses will receive them. We’ve been partnering with them for a while on that and then they were brought in as part of County of Santa Clara’s effort to do parent enrollment for the emergency childcare. The First 5s have also been very supportive, especially First 5 Santa Clara, which has been very engaged in our efforts with Santa Clara county. Their Executive Director Jolene Smith is just a dynamo and an important leader in this effort. There’s definitely a network of support behind these efforts and it’s getting stronger and stronger.
EECA: When are you planning to open these emergency childcare centers and where?
Scott Moore: By March 25, Kidango will have five centers open in Santa Clara and Alameda counties including one center at a hospital in Fremont. And we’ll see about opening more. This is an experiment. There’s no question there’s a need for people such as healthcare workers and first responders to go to work. The real question is do they have a childcare need and that is to be determined. Certainly some do, we know that, but how many? A lot of people don’t want their children in group care right now, so I think those who feel more comfortable with it, or don’t have another option will take advantage of it. Some initial experience with the hospital in Fremont would suggest that demand may not be that great, but it could easily be different per county and it could easily change next week, because the hospitals haven’t really been inundated yet. We’ll see as there are more and more patients coming in, that may change, and as we’ve all experienced, when things change, they change quickly. So to have things in place already is important.
EECA: Do you have any advice for providers who are struggling to provide emergency childcare?
Scott Moore: From our experience, just take it one step at a time. What I keep telling all our staff, because we’re all working really hard, is don’t forget to take care of yourself while you’re thinking about how we’re going to take care of others. Know that whatever you got done today is enough, and that we’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other. And we’ll be amazed by all that we do, and just believe that and know that.
I would also say it’s critical to really pay careful and close attention to the new health and safety regulations that have been released so that when you are providing care, you do so in a way that limits the spread of the virus as much as possible and keeps staff and children as safe as possible.
Visit Kidango to learn more about the work they do and their current efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.