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Sonoma County expands emergency child care program to support health care workers treating coronavirus patients

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Sonoma County has launched three emergency child care centers for children of critical health care workers, who are bracing to treat a surge of coronavirus patients in coming weeks as the local outbreak is expected to approach its peak.

The effort, a partnership by county officials and local nonprofits, has begun providing free child care for families of 58 children ages 6 months to 13 years old through April 7, when the county’s shelter-in-place order was initially set to expire. The program is equipped to extend through the end of May, if needed, and expand service to a total of 100 children, although parents may have to begin paying a fee after April 7.

The goal is to provide families of health care workers with crucial support as public officials warn that coronavirus cases in the county are expected to mount, putting a strain on local hospitals.

“For those families who don’t have any other options, that is who that emergency child care is for,” said Melanie Dodson, executive director of Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, known as the 4Cs. “Maybe a grandparent was caring for a child, but because of COVID-19, the grandparent is at high risk and they need another option ­— or now that their kids aren’t going to school, they need care for the whole day.”

To curb the spread of the virus, the county has ordered that all day care facilities, preschools and elementary schools suspend day-to-day operations. However, child care centers may still serve families of health care workers and other essential services employees as long they follow strict guidelines, including limiting classrooms to no more than 12 children and assigning staff to only one location.

Using a mix of state and local funding, the nonprofit 4Cs has helped set up three centers in partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Santa Rosa, North Bay Children’s Center and Sonoma County Family YMCA. It’s also working with a handful of small family child care providers for infants and toddlers.

Susan Gilmore, president and CEO of the North Bay Children’s Center, said the group has opened one classroom at Steele Lane Elementary School in Santa Rosa.

“(Health care workers) are very grateful to have this,” she said. “Without child care they can’t work. The lack of child care is crippling for the essential workforce.”

The program in Sonoma County is being funded through a combination of federal, state and local sources, including a state tobacco tax for childhood development. The county has so far allocated $600,000 to the program, according to the nonprofit First 5 Sonoma County.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse up to 70% of that spending.

If the program is extended past April 7, it could expand to include additional child care providers and support more families.

Angie Dillon-Shore is the executive director of First 5 Sonoma County, which is helping distribute the $100,000 in state tobacco tax money. She said the program, which is offering child care workers a hazard pay premium, could be a much-needed boost for the local child care industry.

“Child care providers are some of the lowest-paid workers in the economy, even though they’re considered essential,” she said. “They’re putting their own health on the line if they have kids of their own.”

Essential health care workers and licensed child care providers are encouraged to contact the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County at info@sonoma4cs.org or 707-544-3077.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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