Calaveras County has always had a shortage of childcare options, but the pandemic is testing the limits of what a small number of private preschools, daycares and family care providers can achieve.

“We need family childcare providers desperately – particularly ones that will take infants,” Bronwyn Kennedy, program director for the Child Care Resource and Referral program at the Resource Connection, told the Enterprise on Monday.

According to Kennedy, her program serves roughly 100 licensed childcare providers (family daycare homes and preschools) in Amador and Calaveras counties, as well as 68 non licensed providers such as neighbors, families and friends who watch children.

The Resource Connection, a nonprofit organization founded in 1980, encompasses multiple programs in Amador and Calaveras counties, including the Food Bank and the Child Care Resources and Referral program, which is primarily funded by the state Department of Education. In ordinary times, the program provides training events, licensing assistance and subsidies to any and all childcare providers, as well as referral services.

After schools were shuttered during the statewide stay-at-home order, Kennedy and her eight employees leapt into action, distributing cleaning supplies, diapers, masks, toys and 286 cots (for socially distanced nap times) to approximately 50 childcare providers within the two counties.

“Anything they said they needed, we made sure we got it for them,” Kennedy said. “Our staff never stopped working during COVID – probably worked longer and harder than ever.”

The program was also able to assist essential workers by paying for childcare.

Due to childcare being deemed an essential sector during the stay-at-home order, the state apportioned $50 million in late April to provide cleaning and other supplies to childcare services, distributed by Resource and Referral programs.

Those supplies made all the difference in enabling school-aged children to finish their semester remotely, according to San Andreas daycare owner Linda Roe.

While her home-based Gold Country Daycare didn’t have the bandwidth to support the multiple Chromebooks provided by schools for remote learning, Roe was able to work with teachers to accommodate students with a paper-only format. The Resource and Referral program provided ink and paper.

“Every single one of my parents were essential workers. (The children) were all here,” said Roe, whose daycare has rarely gone below maximum capacity since opening around eight years ago. However, shuffling 14 children of all ages between naps and remote classes was a new challenge altogether. “We had to do as much schoolwork as we could.”

Roe said the Resource and Referral program has always been “a blessing,” keeping her daycare full and providing training sessions on the latest in childcare services. Yet she has concerns that the county’s feeble network of childcare providers will not be able to absorb the wave of demand that may arise if school resumes with certain modifications in the fall.

Though nothing has been determined yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended shift schedules and hybrid remote learning as methods to control the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Roe said staggered classes would wreak havoc on daycares, requiring more space and time availability in a community where securing childcare is already a difficult endeavor. Additionally, other facilities like hers may not be able to support long-term remote learning due to poor internet connections in rural areas.

For Debbie Arledge, owner of Mother Hen’s Farmhouse Friends in Valley Springs, a surge in childcare needs during the spring semester meant taking on four new children and an additional aid. Arledge obtained a waiver from the state during the pandemic to increase her capacity from eight to 10. She is now working towards a permanent license to care for 14 children at a time.

“When the pandemic is over, we will have extra openings. That way, if those children have nowhere to go, we won’t have to get rid of kids,” she said. “I don’t want to look at a mom and say, ‘You have two weeks to find alternate care because my waiver expired.’”

Although Arledge has nearly two-decades’ worth of experience working in childcare, becoming a “teacher” on top of her care duties during the spring semester was no easy feat. At first, her six school-aged children, all in different classes, had trouble focusing on their Chromebooks as they learned separately, side by side.

“I just thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this,’” Arledge said.

Soon, a solution came to her, and the Resource and Referral program was able to help her obtain it: headphones. Things got easier after that.

“We put our heads down and went to work,” Arledge said. “We embraced it instead of fighting it, and it really worked out well.”

Like the childcare providers she serves, Kennedy is apprehensive about what the fall semester may bring and whether her program will be able to continue distributing supplies and subsidies that may be desperately needed.

“We are hoping that the (state) budget reflects positively for us this next year, but we are always accepting donations to our program,” Kennedy said.

She also hopes that more community members will utilize the Resource and Referral program to become licensed childcare providers and fill in the growing gaps.

“We desperately need childcare providers, and we will do whatever we need to get childcare providers trained,” Kennedy said.

For more information on the Resource Connection’s Child Care Resources and Referral Program, visit trcac.org.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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