Not IF But WHEN: Navigating a Virus Situation at Your School – A Webinar Recap

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As child care businesses across the country look to reopen or expand enrollment, they are instituting new processes and procedures aimed at mitigating the transmission of COVID-19. But what happens if a center that is following all the recommendations of their local health department and the CDC still has a staff member or child test positive for the virus? HINGE Brokers posed this question to Aleta Mechtel, owner of multiple child care centers and a substitute teaching service in Minneapolis.

Recently, Aleta learned a teacher at one of her centers contracted COVID-19 just hours after she and her staff had celebrated their success at being close to pre-COVID enrollment numbers.

“We had planned for this, so we sprung into action immediately – it’s all about acting quickly and smartly,” said Aleta. “We connected with our local health department, which was an amazing resource and support system for us.”

Aleta’s team closed the teacher’s classroom and called each of the families whose child had been in that classroom to let them know about the situation and ask that they quarantine for two weeks. They also sent a letter to the rest of the school population.

“We have to be open and transparent with our families, especially during this time,” said Aleta. “I’m a strong believer that honesty is the best policy, and we must keep the lines of communication open to instill trust within our community.”

Given COVID-19 has put the child care community (and beyond) in a constant state of flux, it’s no surprise that a few days later, Aleta received word that several more teachers and students had tested positive for COVID-19. Aleta talked with her contacts at the health department, which included the head of epidemiology, and ultimately decided to close the entire center.

“It was a tough decision – while the health department didn’t mandate our closure, we felt it was best for the safety of our families,” Aleta said. “Luckily for us, the parents were very understanding, and have been supportive of our decision.”

Prior to the outbreak, Aleta and her team had made sure to build relationships in the community with vendors offering cleaning services, so she already had a company teed up to come into the school to sanitize and fog the entire building.

“Building relationships and doing the vetting prior to a crisis is key – scammers come out of the woodwork during times like these, so you have to do your homework,” Aleta said.

During the school’s closure, Aleta and her team have been holding regular meetings to assess the situation and make sure every family is receiving frequent communication.

“More than anything, families and staff need emotional support – this is a really tough time, so we have to show unity as we address these challenges,” Aleta said.

When asked about her top advice, Aleta outlined several tips:

  • Have a deep bench of leadership. Prior to the outbreak, the school’s director went out on maternity leave, so the assistant director stepped in. But what happens if the assistant director falls ill? Aleta said it’s important to have a clear plan to address who’s on point of a leader gets sick.
  • Make sure you’re up to date on all health department and CDC guidelines. Check back frequently, as the situation is changing on a daily basis.
  • Consider lowering your temperature threshold. Aleta’s schools will not permit anyone with a fever of 99 degrees or higher. “This was an important step we took, because we soon learned that 75 to 80 percent of the students and teachers testing positive for COVID never had high fevers,” Aleta said.
  • Raise the “fever-free” threshold. Instead of requiring students to be fever- and medication-free for 24 hours, consider bumping that up to 72 hours.
  • Communicate a lot, and then communicate some more. Communicate so often that you answer questions of families and staff before they’re asked. Conduct Zoom calls and Facebook Lives, post YouTube videos, have teachers write letters to families, etc. Make sure families are clear on what you’re doing to sanitize your school.
  • Have an emergency plan and update it as necessary. Aleta had a plan in place, but has now begun developing an entire emergency book based on the learnings that have come out of her school’s closure. “A lot of to-do’s came out of this, but the thing is, it has made our company stronger and brought us closer together,” Aleta said.

Asked about if she’d change anything about her approach to the outbreak, Aleta replied, “We did everything we could with the information we had. Was it perfect? No, but every company has cracks – it’s important you build a strong team so that those cracks don’t become gaping wounds.”

She added, “No one person has all the answers, so it’s important we empower our staff to take ownership of the situation and do the best they can.”

To watch the full webinar, click here.

If you’re in the process of reopening or expanding enrollment, here are additional resources that may be helpful:

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