As communities around the country attempt to cope with COVID-19, the city of Helena, Lewis and Clark County and the YMCA of Helena collaborated on a solution to one of the pandemic's toughest problems: child care.
Shortly after the start of an unfamiliar-looking school year, the local YMCA at the behest of Lewis and Clark County created a distance learning child care program for the school-age children of county and city employees.
The program has since opened up to all area children in kindergarten through eighth grade and is available Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. YMCA staff assist children with their required distance learning assignments and provide educational and recreational activities throughout the day.
Both the county and city governments will subsidize half the cost of the service for employees who utilize it. The plan is to use Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money to cover the subsidy.
"Our survey (of county employees) indicated there was a need for it," said Lewis and Clark County Finance Director Nancy Everson, who spearheaded the project on the county's side. "But also just seeing what our employees are going through, it was clear."
Lewis and Clark County Chief Administrative Officer Roger Baltz took a more pragmatic stance on the program.
"Our goal through the pandemic is to continue to offer services," Baltz said. "Being able to have proper staffing was part of the conversation that led us here. It certainly assists the employees, but it also allows us to have some certainty with staffing."
The city government's Human Resource Specialist Sheri Hall said the county initiated the discussions and brought the city in.
"The city and county, we care about our employees and not just while they're at work," Hall said. "This shows a high level of commitment from our local governments to our employees."
Both Hall and Everson said no cap on spending was set for this project, but if the need persists, that conversation will have to occur.
Everson also said the county does not intend to continue the project beyond the pandemic.
"When the demand isn't there anymore or the county needs the fairgrounds back, we'll re-assess," she said. "I think the real trigger will be a return to five days of in-school learning."
The state government redirected $50 million of CARES Act funding into a grant program aimed at propping up child care services across Montana in mid-August.
YMCA of Helena has applied for a grant through that program to help offset the cost of this distance learning child care. Everson said that if YMCA of Helena is awarded the grant, the county would not need to subsidize their employees' costs.
"We don't intend to spend much of the CARES Act money," Everson said. "We want to set some aside in case the financial situation worsens, and to wait for more direction from the federal government (about what municipalities can and cannot spend the money on)."
For the local YMCA's part, Youth Director Alex Reid said the organization was well positioned to implement the program.
"Within a split second (of being approached by the county), I said 'absolutely,'" Reid said.
Reid also said the cost of the service was consciously kept as low as possible.
He said much effort went into designing a program that can meet the needs of families while strictly adhering to Lewis and Clark Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
"We followed those to the letter," Reid said. "We understand a lot of people are nervous."
The YMCA divided the county fairgrounds' large exhibition hall into individual learning and activity spaces using about 10-foot tall cloth partitions, creating a maze of "classrooms," each with its own hand sanitizing station.
The children are kept within small groups based on schools and familial relationships.
Reid estimated the facility has space for every school in the district.
The YMCA currently staffs the facility with 15 people, mostly local high school students, and has many more on hold to bring aboard as the operation scales up.
"I've been here three years, and this is the biggest thing I've ever heard of this Y doing," Reid said. "It's a big deal. I take pride in it."
The distance learning child care program costs $40 a day or $175 a week for children from the general public. Reid said his organization has leftover United Way scholarship dollars from this past summer that have been approved to put toward this program for families unable to afford it.
"We try not to make it seem like school, but it is," Reid said, adding that providing some semblance of normalcy for the children is a priority. "Whenever we get the chance, we let them be kids and not have to worry about emailing their teacher. That's for college students."
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://apm.activecommunities.com/helenafamilyymca/Activity_Search.