Schools, day care centers to reopen for essential workers

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Shuttered K-12 school buildings and closed private child-care facilities are being reopened across the state this week exclusively for use by essential workers, part of a directive from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, said efforts to transform closed schools and reopen closed private day-care centers started last week when Whitmer authorized the state's 56 intermediate school districts to coordinate child-care needs for the state's essential workers, some of whom have been unable to come to work because they have no one to watch their children.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

"We can't open for education but we can open for child care for essential workers," Miller said on Tuesday.

Last week, Whitmer signed an executive order expanding the capacity for the Disaster Relief Child Care Services "for health care workers, first responders and other members of the essential workforce providing critical infrastructure to Michiganders during the coronavirus crisis."

Whitmer requested that Intermediate School Districts across the state help expand the capacity for child care services.

Miller said conversations are continuing across the state to coordinate which K-12 buildings will be used and who will staff the centers.

Some, like the Macomb Intermediate School District, are reopening district-run child care facilities and private-run facilities to serve essential workers during the crisis.

Macomb County was the first of the ISDs to announce its program, which it did on Monday. In the last four days, it has heard from 70 families who need child care. Of those, 25 have enrolled into one of the county's 19 available sites. 

"As of now we have plenty of space and plenty of capacity," said Joanne Elkin, an early childhood consultant at the MISD.

County officials said child-care sites have been selected based on the location of the county's three hospitals: Ascension in Macomb Township and Warren, Henry Ford Macomb in Clinton Township and McLaren Macomb in Mt. Clemens.

Additional child-care sites have been identified in the northern, middle and southern parts of the county, officials said.

Michael DeVault, superintendent of the Macomb Intermediate School District, said Warren Woods Early Childhood Center, a building operated by the Warren Woods Public Schools district that was briefly closed during the K-12 shutdown, has been reopened and designated as an essential worker only child-care facility that can be used to serve up to 50 children, ages birth to 5.

More than a dozen families called for help this week, including one nurse, who was connected to a private facility near her home, officials said. Calls are coming mostly from hospital workers and public safety.

"These are private child care providers who are licensed. They had to close because they were losing business, so when the order came out, we reached out to these providers to help these families," Elkin said.

Macomb officials are using surveys to gauge the need for child care and to connect parents with centers.

"This is personalized service. That is what I like about this," DeVault said.

Karen Pitters is the director of the Trinity Lutheran Church Early Childhood Center in Clinton Township, where three new families have enrolled in child are as part of the focus on helping essential workforce parents.

Trinity Lutheran Church Early Childhood Center in Clinton Township is among the closed school buildings that are re-opening to serve as child care centers for essential workers like hospital, police and fire fighters, among others,

Pitters said her business saw an immediate loss of families around the first announced case of the coronavirus in Michigan on March 11, with nearly half pulling their children out of the church-based center.

The center offers half-day preschool programs, Head Start and child care for children to age 12.

When Pitters learned last week her center could serve essential workers' children, she decided to stay open.

"Our mission is to serve families," she said.

Like everyone else, Pitters is concerned about keeping the facility cleaned during the crisis for children in her care and for her staff.

"We’ve taken measures to do extra hand sanitizing and keep everyone safe as possible," she said.

Those in need of child-care services in Macomb County can call (586) 412-2676.

In the Traverse City area, the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District is working with hospitals and other essential workers to offer child-care facilities, first using existing private day care systems and then expanding to local school districts' licensed care facilities, said Superintendent Nick Ceglarek.

As of Tuesday, the district had 41 people seeking some child-care needs, he said.

"We think it's going to change the longer this goes, and we want to make sure we’re responsive to what that need is,” Ceglarek said.

Miller said he did not know how many schools will be repurposed and that number would depend on capacity and demand, once those factor are determined.

"We don’t know what the need is to gear up to the capacity. The other thing is we need to have a better way to let people know about this. We don’t have a strong communications plan yet," he said.

Once decisions are made about which buildings to use, Miller said equipment such as cribs and change tables would be needed. The buildings would be set up to provide child care for infants through age 12.

Miller said officials are still determining what to charge customers, but the goal is to have it be reasonable.

He said the Ingham ISD is also working with health officials on providing school-issued personal protection equipment to hospitals.

"They are coordinating with locating masks in schools, we do have quite a bit of supplies and bringing them into a drop off point in Lansing. The situation is all unique," Miller said.

Educators from intermediate school districts are also coordinating the donation of school-owned medical supplies, like hospital beds, masks and gloves, to hospitals in their areas.

Jason Mellema, superintendent of the Ingham County Intermediate School District, said medical supplies including beds, masks, gloves and shields have been gathered from the county's career-technical education center and from local districts this week and donated to Sparrow Health to help with the crisis.

"There is that need, if districts can spare those, that is the right thing to do," Mellema said. "Those supplies could end up saving lives."

Beth LeBlanc contributed to this report.