By Jeremiah Knupp, senior contributor
As schools shut down and daycare centers operate under new restrictions – precautions meant to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus – parents who are still required to go to work every day could now be facing months of childcare challenges. At one crucial area institution, Sentara RMH Medical Center, this has prompted a call for volunteers to meet that need.
Last Wednesday, RMH Palliative Care Chaplain Rene Hostetter sent out an email to leaders in the area’s faith communities, asking them to spread the message that volunteers were needed to provide child care for RMH employees.
“Our hospital needs are increasing at the same time as staff are finding difficulty finding childcare,” Hostetter said in her email. “We are reaching out to our local faith communities to see if there would be any interested and available individuals to provide childcare for Sentara staff members’ children in order for them to be free to be at the hospital where they are very needed.”
According to Sentara RMH Human Resources Director Troy Kurtz, last week the hospital polled its employees to see who needed childcare help due to schools closing.
“Reaching out to employees to see how much demand we might have generated some volunteers,” Kurtz said. We had people say things like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a daughter home from Virginia Tech.'”
It also caused employees, like Hostetter, to reach out to the wider community in search of volunteers.
As of the end of last week, Kurtz said that most RMH employees were not working increased hours.
“This is more in preparation for what could be,” he said. “I think some of our employees responded because they were thinking, ‘What if my childcare provider becomes ill?'”
Governor acknowledges childcare pinch
On Monday, when Governor Ralph Northam announced that all schools in the state would be closed through the end of this academic year, he acknowledged that school closures would put a strain on parent’s childcare options, especially for medical personnel.
“I understand that for many families these closures present practical considerations of who will care for children during the day now that they are not in school,” Northam said. “These questions are especially pressing for our essential workers, such as our doctors, nurses and first responders [and] our grocery store workers. These people keep our communities functioning.”
Like RMH, Northam made a call for volunteers to meet the need.
“We need an urgent public/private response,” he continued. “Today I’m calling on our local communities, private daycare providers, community childcare partners and public schools to rally together to provide childcare for the young children and school-age children of essential personnel. Our childcare providers are also essential personnel. We must rally together to fill this pressing need across the Commonwealth, while following strict health protocols to keep our children safe.”
Response strong to initial call for volunteers
Kurtz said that more employees had inquired about childcare following the governor’s announcement. As of Tuesday morning, 31 employees, with 55 children between them, had indicated they may have a need.
According to Kurtz, RMH has offered on-site childcare in the past for employees whose children were sick and couldn’t go to school. But new regulations have since closed that program down, and it is not practical to offer childcare on-site due to the current situation.
“The hospital has a disaster continuity plan in place that addresses these types of things, but in these types of scenarios, the variables change,” Kurtz said. “In this situation, with limits on the number of people you can have in a group, it makes it a little unique. So what our historical plan for childcare has been, would not be a viable option.”
Kurtz stressed that the call for childcare assistance is not an official action of Sentara RMH and that parents are still ultimately responsible for who they get to keep their children.
“We’re not an official referral service or clearing house. Our employees must vet any volunteer they reach out to,” Kurtz said. “We’re just providing resources that they can look into. Under normal circumstances this is not something that we would ordinarily do.”
Kurtz said that the response from the community had been strong. As of Tuesday morning 41 people had signed up as volunteers.
“We’ve had a very good response,” he said. “It shows how the Harrisonburg community really steps up and it is a great reflection on how members of this community volunteer in times of need.”
Despite the positive response so far, Hostetter is still collecting the names of volunteers in case they are needed. Those interesting in volunteering to provide childcare for Sentara RMH employees can contact her at [email protected].
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Hostetter’s email address above. After publication, Hostetter contacted The Citizen to clarify that the volunteer childcare being offered for Sentara RMH employees is not group care, where children from multiple families will come together with one care giver, but each individual volunteer will be paired with an employee and care for their children only.
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