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Kerensa DeHerrera, right, is one of four child care workers at the Southwest Family YMCA who are part of Colorado's effort to provide free child care for emergency workers battling the coronavirus pandemic in the state. On March 24, about 18 kids are at this location, ranging from pre-school age to 12-years-old. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It was almost like putting together a puzzle, one with about 1,700 pieces.

What started as a broad-based effort to ensure Colorado’s essential workers have access to child care while battling the new coronavirus ended with a system that placed 1,700 kids into the hands of licensed providers statewide — all within the span of a week.


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The care will be free to families through April 4, thanks to state and federal funds as well as philanthropic dollars from the Buell Foundation and Centura Health, leaders of the initiative said.

The goal of connecting children of essential workers with safe places to go during the day brought together a collection of state agencies, community and philanthropic organizations, technology experts and child care providers — who formed the Colorado Emergency Child Care Collaborative under the direction of Gov. Jared Polis.

Those kinds of safe places, members of the collaborative say, are critical to Colorado’s battle against the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The whole purpose of closing schools and other community staples was to try to flatten the curve so that health care professionals would have time to respond to the crisis, said Michael Johnston, president and CEO of Gary Community Investments.

“That only works if our nurses and custodial staff and doctors can still get to work,” Johnston said. Child care is a key component of their ability to make it to work.

Polis last Wednesday announced a plan to ensure that workers essential to fighting the spread of the coronavirus — including health care workers and employees of long-term care facilities — would have access to child care, but the coordinating began three days earlier and extended many hours throughout the week.

Gary Community Investments, a Denver-based philanthropic organization focused on helping low-income children and families, largely served as the connecting tissue of the operation, starting with a phone call among many child care experts, including child care providers, the Colorado Department of Human Services, CDHS’s Office of Early Childhood, the Colorado Children’s Campaign and a few school districts such as Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools.

Another early step centered on the creation of a website that gathered information from both Colorado parents and child care providers to assess the number of families needing care and the supply of providers with capacity.

Alexis Uney, 7, left, and one of her friends, sit at a table working on their butterfly masks together at the Southwest Family YMCA in Denver on March 24, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The technology minds behind Denver-based Nanno, an on-demand child care platform that links families with babysitters, were the driving forces behind the website. They built software to connect licensed child care providers with families, said Liz Oertle, CEO and co-founder. The software is very similar to Nanno’s original technology, she said, but instead of matching parents to individual caregivers it opens them up to licensed, center-based child care providers.

Through the website, families submit personal information, such as their children’s ages and their location, and then an algorithm pairs them with the closest child care provider that can meet their needs, Oertle said.

Johnston said the collaborative was worried about drawing enough providers and enough parents, but on the day of the website’s launch it attracted more than 1,000 families.

Oertle and her business partner, who built the site in less than a week, devoted 12 hours to matching children of essential workers with providers over the weekend so that a child care system could be ready to launch on Monday.

They’re hoping to be able to match families and providers more immediately once a request for child care has been submitted.

The software’s ability to bring together parents and available providers so quickly is always useful, Oertle said, “but in this environment it’s absolutely essential.”

For now, Colorado’s child care sector has enough capacity to serve the 1,000 families — and 1,700 children — in need. That could change, particularly as the definition of essential workers expands to include others, such as police officers, firefighters and other public safety personnel.

Kerensa DeHerrera helps Dominic Thomas, 10, to try on the butterfly mask that he has made as part of the YMCA’s emergency child care program. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We’re expecting more families to ask for help, and the main work will be matching those families up to providers as quickly as we can,” said Michelle Barnes, executive director of CDHS, the agency taking the lead on the state’s participation in the collaborative.

It’s not clear if the capacity at child care providers will be able to expand as well.

“So far, I’ve been impressed by people wanting to be part of helping the fight on COVID-19 and being willing to open or reopen centers and I have great confidence that will continue,” Barnes said.

Johnston estimates that more than 500 providers have indicated interest in helping out. He regards them as “heroic.”

Among the most difficult elements of pulling together a statewide child care system for essential workers has been accommodating diverse needs across the state, Johnston said. For instance, a small rural county might have only one person who needs care, which wouldn’t warrant standing up an entire center.

Johnston noted that Colorado’s child care providers, network of counties and early childhood councils have found ways to accommodate the needs so far.

In looking back on a week that was filled with many phone calls and with few hours of sleep, Johnston was struck by how deeply people wanted to help one another and “how hard they will work for total strangers.”

He said the entire effort felt “like a quintessentially Colorado undertaking.”

Coloradans are problem solvers who don’t care about getting credit but simply want to get results for people, he said.

“That spirit has animated this effort at every step.”

Connecting with kids and keeping them safe

DENVER, CO – MARCH 24: Kim Penzien, second from left, and Kerensa DeHerrera, second from right, are two of four childcare workers at the Southwest Family YMCA who are on hand to serve a very important role during the coronavirus pandemic on March 24, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. Today, about 18 kids are at this location, ranging from pre-school age to 12-years-old, and are able to participate in physical activities in the gymnasium, as well as a range of craft projects, like making masks. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Denver’s Southwest Family YMCA opened up its doors to 16 children of essential workers this week, said Erin Garcia, director of licensed child care programs, though there’s room for plenty more. The YMCA location has the capacity to serve more than 50 children — far from the total of 19 children the program is currently looking after.

Part of that dip could be attributed to parents keeping their children home, Garcia said, along with a potential lack of awareness in the community about the YMCA’s availability for child care.

Still, the center is buzzing with games, crafts, coloring and music, thanks to a staff that has stepped up to find creative ways to engage kids and get them active, Garcia said, acknowledging how stressful the coronavirus crisis is for the young ones they’re caring for.

YMCA staff make a point to constantly check in with the children on how they’re doing and feeling, encouraging them to talk, draw or express themselves in whatever way works best, Garcia said.

Within the child care program, kids can play and simply enjoy being kids, she said, though it’s much more difficult when taking precautions against the spread of the coronavirus. The YMCA’s child care program caters to children ages 2.5 to 12, and for those on the younger end of the spectrum it’s hard to understand the need for personal space, Garcia said. That’s one of the basics the program generally addresses with its kids — now more than ever.

But children also need connection, Garcia said.

“They need to feel secure and safe and sometimes the way to do that is when they are close and near to people,” Garcia said.

The challenge falls in trying to connect with young kids while conveying to them the need for space because of safety and health, she said.

Kim Penzien, background, helps kids in the childcare program complete craft projects as part of their activities at the Southwest YMCA in Denver on March 24. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The YMCA is taking several measures to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, including limiting each child-care area to no more than 10 children and taking advantage of the building’s large gymnasium where children and staff can separate.

When children first enter the building, they’re required to immediately wash their hands. Hand sanitizer is also available for parents as they escort their children into the center and out of it, Garcia said.

Staff take an additional hour at the end of the day to spray, sanitize and clean everything. That includes toys, gym equipment like balls and hula hoops, door handles and restrooms. The cleaning responsibilities are largely up to them as the YMCA has scaled back its cleaning crew to only come at night, to lessen the exposure, Garcia said.

Barnes said child care centers welcoming children of essential workers are following guidance released by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and partnering with their local public health offices to ensure they know exactly what steps they need to take.

Among the recommendations: Child care centers need to keep children in small groups, increase the amount of playtime outdoors and follow their routine cleaning procedures. Additionally, if a child or staff member at a center becomes sick with the coronavirus, the center is to shut down for 72 hours. Multiple cases require a center to shut down for 14 days.

Garcia described the state’s effort to ensure that child care is in place for those on the front lines as “absolutely necessary” and said she’s grateful to support families as they work to flatten the curve of the coronavirus.

It’s that kind of willingness to help, with no expectation of anything in return other than to join the larger effort to slow the spread of the virus, that has stood out to Barnes.

“We’re doing what Coloradans do best, standing up and helping our neighbors.”

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin