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The state of Florida is offering a lifeline to critical first responders and health care workers serving on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic by offering free child care for up to three months for parents serving in those capacities.
The program, sponsored by Florida's Office of Early Learning, began April 1 and is open to a broad range of health care workers and first responders living in the state of Florida. The Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County and the Early Learning Coalition of Santa Rosa County are organizing their respective county's efforts.
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"We're doing something that has never been done before, because of circumstances that have never happened before," said Bruce Watson, executive director of the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County. "I'm very pleased that our child care workers are ready and willing to rise to this challenge."
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The program works similar to how the Early Learning Coalition sponsors low-income working parents who qualify for free child care (open to families making $40,000 or less for a family of four). The first responders program, however, has no income restrictions and is open to all first responders and health care workers who need child care in order to do their jobs.
The Early Learning Coalition will pay for the child care for up to 90 days — a time period that could be extended if the situation calls for it. Watson estimated between 40 to 45 of the 85 day care centers in Escambia County that he normally contracts with are still open during the pandemic. Child care has been deemed an essential service by the state and can remain open even under the safer-at-home order.
Many first responders already have their children enrolled in one of the participating day care centers, in which case the ELC will retroactively pay back the child care costs from April 1. Otherwise, the 90-day period starts on the child's first day of care.
"For those who still have a job, especially those with very critical jobs that the rest of us need for them to be working, if they had no place to take their children then those jobs would basically go unfilled," Watson said.
Many health care workers are declining to accept the free child care, however, because they don't want to risk their child transmitting anything to other children or adults, and vice versa.
"They place themselves at risk by going through the whole decontamination thing, they don't want to have to worry about that with their children as well," he said.
The ELC is encouraging parents who are staying home or are unemployed at the moment to not bring their children to day care in order to keep spaces free for first responders and their families. Day care centers currently allow no more than 10 people per room, including adults, to comply with social distancing guidelines meant to stop the spread of the virus.
Watson said day care workers aren't getting enough credit during the pandemic, as many of them are risking their own health to show up to work in order to provide child care — a critical service necessary for basic infrastructure.
"Our child care workers are taking on all of the same risks as our health care workers without any of the support of working in a hospital," Watson said. "They're coming from a variety of backgrounds and a variety of levels of exposure. ... our providers are in the midst of all of this and accepting it without the support and benefits of personal protective equipment."
Shanna Robinson owns the House of Prayer Learning Center on Barrancas Avenue in Pensacola. She said she usually has upwards of 100 children in her care, but that number is now between 35 and 40 due to the ongoing pandemic.
Several of her families qualify for the new free child care program, which means Robinson will still get critical income she needs to keep her facility up and running. It also means she gets to play a part in the relief efforts, which she sees as one of her biggest responsibilities.
“I consider us first responders, because we’re the ones that make sure parents can be on the front lines by making sure their kids are safe,” Robinson said. “You can’t work if you don’t feel comfortable knowing your child is safe, he’s washing his hands, keeping everything clean and we’re making sure there’s not a spread of germs. We just do the best we can to adapt to the situation and make sure that parents feel safe, and that extra burden is lifted off of them.”
Aayana McCreary is one of those parents. She has a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old who are both under Robinson’s care at House of Prayer, and she began her 90-day free child care program on Monday.
McCreary is a case coordinator with the child protection team at Gulf Coast Kid’s House, where she specializes in forensic medical examinations for children suspected to have suffered abuse. She’s categorized as a critical health care worker under the state’s definition of those who qualify for the free child care program.
“I work in a job that, regardless of if a child has symptoms or not, we’re going to have to see them because of the nature of what we do, and so it’s kind of scary,” McCreary said. “But at the same time, we’re doing the best we can to make sure that we’re providing a great service to our community and keeping them safe, as well as ourselves.”
McCreary said taking the burden of paying for child care off of her plate has allowed her to better focus on her kids when they are at home, and has alleviated financial stress associated with the pandemic and her work.
“I have experienced a drastic increase in everyday costs, like food and staple items for our home,” she said. “Just being able to take child care, which is one of my major expenses, off that list is just a godsend. … It’s just awesome being able to know that my children are in an environment where they’re safe and cared for.”
To learn more about how to apply for free child care for critical care workers, visit the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County website (for Escambia residents) or the Early Learning Coalition of Santa Rosa County website (for Santa Rosa residents).
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.