BEMIDJI -- When Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order closing schools across the state, he left in an exception -- schools would remain open as child care facilities for children of emergency workers under the age of 12.

Now throughout Bemidji Area Schools, an average of 150 children of critical care workers are spread between the district’s buildings on any given day to receive child care.

“The child care work is going well. We have over 200 students signed up for child care, but not everyone comes every day. Last week, we averaged around 140 to 150 students a day throughout the district,” Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz said.

At J.W. Smith Elementary, fewer than 15 of those children remain in the building and have collectively given themselves the moniker, “The Sanford Kids Club,” presumably because their parents work at Sanford Medical Center.

A typical day

Over at Gene Dillon Elementary, paraprofessional Mark Henry is taking on a new role. Prior to the closures, Henry spent his days with small groups of special education students, following them during their school days to provide support.

“On a normal day, I would typically work with our special education students, and for me," Henry said. "I have about eight to 10 of them that I work directly with, and I would simply be in their classrooms while they are working, I go outside when they go outside… when they go to specials, I go with them. Typically my day is with small groups of kids, and just being in the general ed classroom, just making sure things go smoothly.”

Now during the age of COVID-19, Henry is working with a different small group -- and with less academic structure.

“It’s been pretty nice, it’s been a different change, but we’ve been dealing with it and adapting to it nicely, so I feel like it’s been working really well,” he said.

Children at J.W. Smith Elementary for childcare on March 23, sit spread out in a classroom while reading independently. (Hannah Olson/Bemidji Pioneer)
Children at J.W. Smith Elementary for childcare on March 23, sit spread out in a classroom while reading independently. (Hannah Olson/Bemidji Pioneer)

He describes a typical day like this:

“Now, I have a different small group of kids, and academics is taken out of it -- this is not counting the last few days, I’m talking about the eight days (of closure) -- academics is kind of taken out of it and we’ve filled it with fun activities throughout the day. We do stations in the gym and play pickleball and volleyball," Henry explained. "We’re very blessed here at Gene Dillon, we have a beautiful, big brand new school with lots of room in it, so we have quite a bit of options for our kids to do in the building alone."

The children at Gene Dillon for child care last week did not have any academic work assigned during the eight days of closure mandated by Gov. Walz. During this time, Henry and other paraprofessionals filled their time with various activities, games and stations.

“We’re trying to keep it structured, but in a way kind of laid back,” he said.

Of all the activities he planned for his group, he said snowshoe excursions were his favorite. He also said they became so popular, even children from other groups asked to join.

“I actually went and borrowed some snowshoes because it kind of got to be repetitive, sort of the same old same old over and over, so I wanted to kind of go outside the box a little bit," Henry said. "We snowshoed around the lake that’s on the backside of our property and as we go around snowshoeing, we come across animal tracks and I bring little books out and we identify the tracks out there."

He said they have been able to identify different types of trees, and as it continues to warm up outside, they have also seen some insects starting to peek out.

“That to me has been my best hour of the day, and the kids absolutely love it," he added. "Everyday another kid or two asks to come, and that makes it fun."

Children have also had the opportunity to do some gardening, play pickleball, read and play scooter hockey.

“One of the things I like to have the kids do is kind of get creative on their own," Henry said. "Usually their days are pretty set for them as far as their schedule, and some of our stations the kids didn’t really care for so much, so I let them come up with their own games and the kids get pretty creative with it.”

Students at J.W. Smith Elementary for childcare on March 23 walk down the hallway following Christine Christiansen. (Hannah Olson/Bemidji Pioneer)
Students at J.W. Smith Elementary for childcare on March 23 walk down the hallway following Christine Christiansen. (Hannah Olson/Bemidji Pioneer)

Distance learning

Now that March 27 has passed and distance learning has begun, the schedules look a bit different for both children and paraprofessionals.

After the eight days of mandated closure, the number of students at Bemidji Area Schools for child care has dropped.

“Now that we’ve seen our numbers are kind of low and we don’t need all of our paras, we are doing a rotation. We still have only about five kids to a group, but we only have about four or five groups now, where before we had eight groups,” Henry said.

Superintendent Lutz said the reason for the drop might be because district teachers are now working from home, so their students can be home with them, instead of at child care.

Now that distance learning has been implemented, children at local schools for child care have academics thrown back into the mix, but with a less rigid schedule than a typical school day.

Children are working on their own on distance learning assignments, with assistance from paras if needed, with breaks in between for activities, reading and games.

“It’s in many ways similar to a regular school day,” Lutz said.

Staying healthy

A concern with having children still in school buildings for child care is determining how to keep them socially distant while being supervised, in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

To help keep students spread out and socially distant, children are sent to the same schools they usually attend for child care. At Gene Dillon Elementary, these children are divided into groups of five or six.

“We’re spread pretty thin anyway throughout this building, in fact, I’ve only seen one other group today,” Henry said. “The social distancing is happening by the scheduling itself, and then it’s just a matter of making sure your individual groups are doing that social distancing from each other."

Henry said while the students start out their days diligent about hand washing and social distancing, they often need reminders later in the day when they get into fun activities and start to forget.

“They often ask, 'how long are we going to be doing this?’ Of course they want to know, ‘when can we come back?’ of course they want to know if their teacher is here in the building because they want to say hi to them,” Henry said.

A group of children at J.W. Smith for childcare on March 23, spread out in the hall to put on their snow gear before going outside. (Hannah Olson/Bemidji Pioneer)
A group of children at J.W. Smith for childcare on March 23, spread out in the hall to put on their snow gear before going outside. (Hannah Olson/Bemidji Pioneer)

Who is eligible for child care?

In Gov. Walz’s executive order closing schools, he required schools across the state to provide child care for emergency workers, including healthcare workers, emergency services and law enforcement.

“We are now slowly adding providing child care for Tier II critical care workers. But, I would like to remind parents that, as our child care enrollment form states, “The care for children of critical care workers is intended for extreme circumstances in which no parent or guardian is available to care for a child due to employment as a critical worker,” Lutz reiterated.

Lutz said that too many people taking advantage of the free child care could make it difficult to maintain social distance between students, and put students and staff at risk.

“That means if a parent is at home because he or she is either temporarily unemployed or is now working from home, the child should remain at home with that parent." he said. "It is very important that as many students as possible stay safe at home with a parent so that we can reduce the spread of the coronavirus. With large numbers of students in our buildings receiving child care services, it is difficult to exercise social distancing effectively and safely.”

Community response

According to Lutz, the community has responded very positively, and gratefully, to the district’s child care measures.

“A huge form of feedback came from Sanford, they called me and asked me how many staff members are at each of our sites providing child care, and so I gave them those numbers and asked them why they needed to know this, and they said they wanted to send some snacks to let all of the school staff know how much we appreciate what you’re doing for us,” he said.

Lutz added, “I appreciate having this opportunity as a school district, to be able to provide this service to the community because the community supports us in so many ways, it’s nice to be able to give back.