MISSOULA — When the pandemic hit and schools across Missoula shut down for safety reasons, most businesses followed, allowing parents to stay home with their children.
But for essential workers, staying home wasn’t an option.
“I was extremely stressed out,” said Rose Chadwell, a service coordinator at a retirement facility in Missoula. “My first instinct was, ‘What are we going to do?’ It was an impossible situation.”
Chadwell and her husband, a forestry technician for the U.S. Forest Service, were both deemed essential workers who had to stay on the job. Their son, 7, was in First Grade when his school closed. Their daughter, 5, was getting ready to start kindergarten.
Finding care for their children at the height of a pandemic, with safety paramount on their minds, seemed at first a daunting task. They turned to the YMCA and its summer and after-school programs for help.
“Our only option was the YMCA, which was a great option,” said Chadwell. “Thank goodness they had that program because we both had to go back to work. It was so hard with the online learning and general childcare. Our kids were both too young to be home.”
Missoula County Public Schools and area childcare providers detailed their plans in August to reopen schools in the new academic year, and how they planned to safely accommodate the return of students.
But even before that, the YMCA stayed open and has provided continuous care throughout the pandemic. When schools shut down in the spring, demand for childcare spiked. As schools and the state’s economy reopened, the need continued to grow.
“We’ve been open and able to provide care since the beginning of the shutdown, the closure of MCPS and the stay at home order,” said Nicole Martin, the senior director of youth programs. “As we opened up, we saw an even greater need for child care because the schools were closed. We knew that kids needed a safe place to be and they’d need academic support in that as well.”
In making its plans, MCPS understood the impacts it’s new hybrid approach would have on parents, especially those who work during the day and needed to find – and fund – additional childcare.
The state has already directed $50 million to maintain and expand child care, as well as support working families. That included $30 million in grants to care for school-aged children outside class.
Martin said the funding has enabled the Y to reduce its programming prices.
“We knew our families would be financially strained by that,” said Martin. “We’ve reduced the cost of our programming. We’re not charging what it truly costs to operate that. We didn’t want families choosing between the safety of their kids and not being able to pay their bills.”
Missoula, like much of Montana, had a shortage of child care providers, even under normal circumstances. The school district’s hybrid model forced many families to find care for their children during working hours when those children would normally be class.
Chadwell’s children attend class two days a week, leaving the family to rely upon the YMCA when they’re not in school. Even on school days, the Y’s after-school programming has come in handy.
“The whole thing from start to finish was just wonderful. We send the kids with folders and their homework, and the councilors get it done,” said Chadwell. “The kids aren’t stressed out about it. There’s certain times they work on their work and certain times they do games and exercise. They come home with fun little songs they learn.”
Martin said the YMCA had a capacity of around 200 kids a week during the summer. It currently serves up to 40 kids in its full-day enrichment program and 20 kids at each of its MCPS after school locations.
To date, she said, the Y’s safety precautions have worked.
“I feel like most of the parents are looking to us for best practices since the Y was at the forefront of emergency child care when COVID hit,” said Martin. “We work close with the health department with some of our licensed programs. We haven’t had to close down for any cases as of today.”