Demand for emergency child care for families of essential workers is taxing school districts and parents as needs fluctuate and schools work to provide enough staffing for their day care programs.

Schools have been providing the free child care for thousands of children statewide since the pandemic forced schools to go online last spring — and they must continue to do so as long as they are operating under a hybrid or distance learning model.

But last month, the state changed the guidance outlining who is eligible. Now families with a two-parent household must provide documentation that both are essential workers, such as a nurse or law enforcement officer. The change left families scrambling just a few weeks before the school year began.

Wendy Hatch, director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the new guidance was more of a clarification than a rewrite of who qualified for free emergency child care.

"The capacity for schools to handle every single person that would fit into this blanket category would be very, very, very hard," Hatch said. "That's why we made sure the parameters around it become more clear."

In the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools, staff had already been pulling 60-hour work weeks for the past few months to plan for and provide the emergency child care for more than 1,100 kids.

Khia Brown, the district's director of community education, said she hopes to hire at least 10 more staff members. If the schools go to an entirely distanced learning model, that number could rise.

"It's been a stressful juggle to figure this out," Brown said. "But we also know families really need this."

'A huge help' for parents

Amy Vivant, who is a single mother working as a nurse at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital, has been sending her youngest two children to Rosemount Elementary School for child care through the school district. This fall has already proven smoother than arranging care through the school last spring, she said.

"It's a huge help," she said. "It's a relief to know that most of their school work will get done there. They have social time and a regular schedule — that's so important."

If she didn't have the emergency child care option, Vivant said she'd likely need to have her 16-year-old daughter help the boys with distance learning while she juggled her own classes.

"This is definitely a need for parents like me," she said. "I'm very grateful."

Anoka-Hennepin School District has about 1,700 children enrolled in child care during normal school hours. The district has enough staff members to accommodate the numbers, but it's been difficult to retain workers as other job opportunities open up, said Al Ickler, the district's director of community education.

Now that the schools are operating under a hybrid model, it's also a challenge to find separate spaces for child care and in-person classes, Ickler said.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, about 370 students are on a waitlist for district-provided child care, with about one-third qualifying under the criteria for eligible essential workers.

The Educational Support Professionals chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 is in discussions with Minneapolis Public Schools about conditions for child care providers in the district. Last spring, staff members providing emergency child care were offered additional pay and given the option to work remotely. In a letter to the district, the union is asking for similar benefits this academic year.

School district officials could not be reached for comment.

Teaming up with the YMCA

Some districts are partnering with local child care centers to help provide adequate staffing levels. Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, which relies on the YMCA for before- and after-school care, has gotten help from YMCA staff who now work a few extra hours to help cover part of the midday shift.

Financial assistance is available to families who don't qualify for the free program for essential workers but still need child care. The YMCA of the North is also providing help for families struggling to pay and has developed learning pods to provide a space for students to complete their distance learning.

YMCA staff members work with the schools to identify plans for each child completing distance learning work at one of the Y's sites. Once they complete their lessons and homework, the students can then participate in a variety of activities.

"We're grateful for the relationships with districts who see us as a viable partner," said Stephanie Chauss, senior vice president of operations for the YMCA of the North.

The YMCA is planning for a flux in the number of students needing day care as learning models and families' needs continue to shift. They are able to offer flexible schedules for parents and have many who drop their children off only one or two days a week.

"We are planning for our communities to need us more and then less," Chauss said. "We'll be ready, even if we can't always know what that means yet."

Staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this story.

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440