Pre-coronavirus shutdown: Playing doctor at Fresno Unified's Early Learning Center. (Photo by Zaidee Stavely/EdSource)

Nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, police and other essential workers now have access to subsidized child care in California, regardless of their income.

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on April 4 that makes it easier for preschools, family child care homes, school districts, after-school programs and others to provide child care for these essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s a strong need throughout the state. And I would say that it’s the place where we need to put our oars down,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, last week during an online address with the governor about the state’s response to the pandemic.

If there is a surge of patients with the coronavirus, X-ray technologist Bill Smith, of Brentwood, in Contra Costa County, anticipates needing child care for his three children, one 7-year-old and two 11-year-olds.

“That’s when I think child care is going to become a crunch for us,” Smith said.

Smith works at a John Muir Outpatient Center in Brentwood. His wife, Andrea Starkel, is a nurse who cares for premature infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek. Their three children are all doing distance learning at home now that their elementary school closed.

Right now, Smith’s hours have been cut because only urgent patients can be seen. But he said the hospital anticipates a surge of patients with COVID-19 in about two weeks, in which case his hours would probably increase.

Normally, the children’s grandmother cares for them after school, when the parents’ shifts overlap. But now, they don’t want to ask her to help because she is elderly and therefore at higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. So they are relying on a high-school-age babysitter to care for the children.

“What I’m concerned about is if the babysitter is uncomfortable or her parents don’t want her to come, because of the risk of exposure because we are health care workers, or if any of us gets sick, or she gets sick,” Smith said.

Newsom’s executive order allows essential workers to access state-subsidized child care and preschool programs, regardless of their income, while schools are closed because of the coronavirus. Children in foster care or at risk of being neglected or abused will still have priority for subsidized care.

The order also allows after-school programs to operate during regular school hours, in schools and other locations, to care for school-age children of essential workers, and allows child care programs to use a new provision of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to feed children in their care.

Child care programs vary in cities, counties

Child care for essential workers is being offered in different ways in different cities and counties. In many counties, like Alameda, Los Angeles and San Diego, children’s agencies and school districts are directing essential workers to existing licensed child care centers and family child care homes that are still open and have space. Several do, with so many parents keeping their children home.

Some cities — San Francisco, Sacramento and Chico among them — are offering child care for the children of essential workers through their parks and recreation programs. Long Beach is trying another approach — pairing unemployed child care workers, including Long Beach Unified volunteers, with parents who are essential workers.

The California Department of Education has encouraged school districts to open school buildings or other facilities to offer child care when needed, and refer parents who need care to other agencies who can help them find it.

Both the Santa Clara County Office of Education and the Santa Barbara County Education Office are helping to coordinate child care for the children of health care workers, by pairing up hospitals with child care centers and other programs at city parks and recreation programs, school districts and other agencies like the YMCA and First 5. The school districts participating include Lompoc Unified School District, Hope School District and Santa Maria Bonita School District in Santa Barbara County, and Morgan Hill Unified School District in Santa Clara County.

“At this very stressful time, it’s so important that our emergency workers know that they can count on our public systems to support them,” said Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan.

About 200 school-age children of health care workers are being cared for in the Santa Clara county programs, Dewan said. She said there are other school districts in the county that are ready to open school doors for emergency child care, if needed.

“It’s not an easy thing to just pop up,” Dewan said. “It is quite challenging because we have to be able to navigate all of the safety precautions as well as be able to accurately determine who would be eligible for this service.”

Dewan welcomed the expansion of state-subsidized preschool and child care for children of essential workers, which was an obstacle to providing care for those families prior to Newsom’s executive order.

School district programs vary too

The order may have already led some other districts to begin offering child care. Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner said on April 6 that the district “will soon be working together with the City of Los Angeles to help provide child care for children of hospital staff.”

Some school districts said they are not offering child care for essential workers because the need is not great in their area, or because they have not been contacted by other agencies requesting the use of their buildings. San Bernardino City Unified School District offered child care to enrolled students only during the first week it was closed, March 16-20, up until the district’s scheduled spring break. Spokeswoman Linda Bardere said that only about 48 students were participating, out of about 48,000.

Lodi Unified partnered with the city of Lodi to offer emergency child care, but no one has signed up yet.

“So far we have not had anyone sign up,” said Lodi City Manager Steve Schwabauer. “But hospitals are not hitting their high pressure points yet in our community. In fact we have a slight lull before the storm.”

The California Department of Education and the California Department of Social Services are expected to issue new guidelines for how to offer child care safely during the pandemic and how to prioritize children of essential workers this week.

Story originally published by EdSource.