As a way to understand and change issues related to child care in Wadena County, community members have participated in a survey, child care appreciation night and town hall as a part of First Children’s Finance Rural Innovation Program. Within the program’s Community Solution Action Plan, the SMART goals include: establishing a licensing guide and resources for new and current child care providers as well as raising awareness about child care.

Wadena County’s SMART goals and projects will be implemented over the next 18-24 months, though, the timeline is a “bit disrupted because of COVID-19,” according to Economic Alliance executive director Katie Heppner. One of the problems is being able to include child care providers and community members in these conversations, as done in the previous steps. Each goal has a project team lead planning the future steps, such as an online network for child care providers to support one another.

Heppner and the core team became more committed to the project as the COVID-19 pandemic further showed how child care providers impact the local economy. In Minnesota in 2016, child care impacted employment in other industries with 44,308 jobs as well as the child care sector’s $2,254,400,000 in revenue output, according to the Child Care in State Economies 2019 report update. As of 2017 in Minnesota, there were 193,203 children ages 0-4 in paid child care, according to the report.

“One thing that COVID-19 did do is it really did highlight the importance of child care providers in our community, and I think we can all agree now more than ever they really are our local heroes,” Heppner said.

Childcare providers were deemed essential and have been allowing other essential employees to continue doing their important work. But caring for a gathering of kids in a time of so much focus on social distancing is no small feat. Some providers saw an increase in the number of children and others have decreased due to business closures or parents working from home, according to Heppner. Caitlin Bernu, a Wadena home-based child care provider at DC’s Little Ducklings, said it depends how many essential worker parents providers have. Child care providers were encouraged to remain open, according to Gov. Tim Walz’s guidance.

“I was excited … because I have to be open so parents that are an essential can go … to work so I thought it was good,” Bernu said.

Bernu’s space allows her to have a maximum of 12 children with one of those being an infant. Bernu had five to six children regularly from March to May. While she was glad to stay open, the days were not the same from increased cleaning to less children.

“Lot quieter, slower. Not as much income,” Bernu said.

The routine of coming to her house for daycare was a normal element that Bernu could offer the children. The activities, such as breakfast, play time and quiet time, stayed the same. Bernu brought the children outside for walks more to help with social distancing and when a student needed to work on distance learning other children colored.

The cleaning routines include washing hands and sanitizing door handles, light switches and toys throughout the day. Bernu also changed her sick policy to require a child to stay home for 72 hours after having a fever or other symptoms. Also, if any family member in the child’s home tests positive for COVID-19 the child would have to stay home for 14 days.

One of the stresses Bernu faced was knowing what to do and when, such as if her business would have to be shut down when a parent tested positive. The mother had not dropped off their child at daycare so Bernu and the other children did not have contact with the mother and thus only the child had to stay home for 14 days. Bernu also closed for a day to clean and organize.

While aspects of society reopen, Bernu continues to prioritize the safety of the children and herself.