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FILE — An empty kindergarten classroom at Robertson Elementary School Monday, March 16, 2020, in Yakima, Wash. All 15 Yakima County school districts canceled on-campus classes Monday, March 16, 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some school-run day care services for health care workers and first responders in Yakima County are beginning to come together in these first days of school closures — while others remain in limbo, awaiting state guidance or demand.

As part of the mandate by Gov. Jay Inslee to close K-12 schools statewide for six weeks through April 24, schools were tasked with providing child care for those on the front lines responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in the state.

This includes firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical personnel, according to definitions announced Wednesday by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. It also encompasses anyone who works in a setting that provides health care services or long term care or supports — like employees of hospitals, clinics, behavioral health centers or nursing homes.

“There are some people having to stay home with their kids until they can find relief,” Erin Black, chief executive officer of the Memorial Foundation, said of child care needs.

So far, she said, it hasn’t been a big issue in the Yakima area. But that could change. In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 cases in Washington state have grown from a few hundred to at least 1,376 as of Thursday, according to the state Department of Health.

“As we start to see more cases and more need of our health care workers, it’s going to be essential that they be able to come (into work) at a moment’s notice,” Black said.

Health care providers and first responders alike will need child care options.

Demand and movements

Virginia Mason Memorial hospital in Yakima is one example of the need. Hundreds of Memorial employees reported need for child care since schools closed, according to a recent survey by the Memorial Foundation. At least 290 of the 622 respondents were clinical staff who needed child care, while 196 were nonclinical and the remainder did not specify, said Black.

Most of the need fell in the West Valley and East Valley school district borders, as well as Yakima and Selah districts. Nearly 88% of respondents needed child care for the day shift, Black said. Just 109 children who needed care were 30 months or younger, making the majority preschool- and school-aged children.

With the first week of school closures drawing to a close, Selah School District is the first district in Yakima County to have a launch date: They’ll begin services on Tuesday. Child care will be available to eligible workers’ children age 3-12 on weekdays during “normal school hours,” said spokeswoman Heidi Diener. Roughly 40 children are expected so far, with eligible parents in need able to request support through the district’s website.

Others are making moves.

Yakima School District plans to provide care for eligible children ages 5-12. The start date is dependent on parent registration, which can be started by taking an online survey or by emailing responderschildcare@yakimaschools.org.

Grandview School District is in the midst of coordinating with local churches and a community after-school program to set up child care provisions. West Valley and East Valley school districts are in conversation with the Memorial Foundation about potential child care offerings. West Valley was also in discussion with their local fire department, according to the district.

But after receiving work from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Wednesday that child care provisions by schools were not mandatory, West Valley determined it is unlikely to provide the service, said Angela Von Essen, the district's assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

The district does not feel prepared with licensing or to enforce social distancing among children, she said, and is instead helping to coordinate parents who reach out with a need with existing child care resources or students who have made themselves available for informal care while they are out of school.

Von Essen emphasized that things are changing by the day, as could the district's stance on child care. But continued learning and meal distribution for students were the current priorities, she said.

Several other districts are at a standstill with child care programs, waiting to see if there is community need. Toppenish School District, for example, planned to launch child care services Monday, but has yet to receive an inquiry from any in-district parents who work as first responders or health care providers.

“If there’s no interest, we’re not going to do it,” said Toppenish Superintendent John Cerna. “A lot of our police don’t live in Toppenish. The fire department (employees) do, but the biggest would probably be (Yakima) Farm Workers Clinic (employees), and most of them have child care already.”

Granger and Highland school districts also reported minimal to no interest. Those who fit the qualifications and are in need of child care should inform their local school district. Most districts have a survey to fill out to register.

Community members with resources to support the services can reach out to organizations like Memorial Foundation, said Black.

“It takes a village, and we’re all working together to support each other,” she said. “I think that’s what makes this community so amazing. We’re going to be able to do it and come together.”

Lingering questions

While districts weigh demand and approach to the new service, they are also working to ensure that they understand and abide by state expectations, said Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, an agency that provides support for school districts in the region.

Lingering questions include whether the state will provide flexibility on child care licensing during this time; if districts are required to provide infant and toddler care despite a lack of supplies like cribs, and if school staff are required to work in child care — or if their union negotiations protect them from such duties.

“What in theory was a good idea is taking a long time to flesh out because there are a lot of details,” said Chase.

OSPI has said more guidance on child care should be released in the coming days.

Districts are not technically required to provide the child care services, though, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal said during a League of Education Voters webinar Thursday. The state does not have the legal ability to task districts with new requirements. Instead, he said, he is “strongly encouraging” them to do so. But it may not be feasible or necessary in every case, he said.

“There is the possibility a school district will say they don’t have the ability,” he said of child care services. But in that case, they should work with community partners to ensure the children of health care workers and first responders are cared for, said Reykdal.

The expectation communicated to districts was that this first week of school closures was intended to be used for planning such provisions, and implementation should begin next week, said Katy Payne, communications director for OSPI. The state agency is working to collect data from districts to determine how many are providing care and how many children will be served, she said.

Child care providers — including existing operations and school districts — have been directed to follow strict social distancing procedures, such as capping group sizes at 10 including adults, limiting item sharing and keeping distance between students, the state Department of Health has said.

This story has been updated to reflect new information from West Valley School District.

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Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka