FARGO — Camille Brandt and her partner are operating three Montessori schools in Fargo that usually have about 130 preschool children and were down to only 30 Friday, March 20.

"I'll think we could drop even more," she said.

She's worried about the 45 people who work at the schools, as they will likely need to be laid off in the coming days without a paycheck. With the traditionally low pay for child care workers, she said unemployment benefits likely won't provide enough for them to survive, and she fears they'll take other jobs and not return when things improve.

"We are poorly paid, but highly valued," she said.

Her fear is that many of the facilities statewide will be closed or wiped out.

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"It's a terrible situation," she said. "We need to be a part of the discussion."

Late last week, she sent a letter to Gov. Doug Burgum, and he responded Monday afternoon at his daily coronavirus press conference where he said a planning process is underway and should be done by Thursday at 4 p.m. to help to make sure child care centers stay open.

He said the plan would likely include financial assistance to keep the state's 1,800 facilities, including 323 in Cass County, open as more than 10% have shut their doors already.

Many other child care facilities said they likely can't survive another two weeks, including about 25% of facilities that completed a survey this past week sent out by the Area Preschool Advocates organization based in Fargo. About 30% said they could survive, while almost 50% said they were unsure.

Almost all of those responding to the survey said children had been withdrawn from their care in the past two weeks.

Besides the financial aid, Burgum offered some hope for the centers. As more parents work from home and keep their children with them, the governor said there is also a need for parents to find a place for some of the other 132,000 children under the age of 12 in the state who are no longer in school and have both parents working.

Safety is a big concern, too, so Burgum said the state would work with child care providers in the next few days to see about distancing between children and determining an appropriate ratio of staff to kids.

He said they are thinking of "requiring more child care workers per child to help increase distance" between the youngsters.

Currently, the rate is set at one worker or teacher per four infants and one per 18 school age children.

Human Service Department Director Chris Jones said they are thinking of lowering the school age number to one worker or teacher per nine children.

Brandt said at her schools in the past week they have been separating children in various rooms.

"We are also constantly cleaning," she said. Her staff and the children also put an emphasis on hand washing.

As the state develops a more detailed plan, Burgum said, they are thinking of the child care workers and teachers as "essential employees," as they often take care of the children of health care employees and those in other important industries.

Burgum said all child care operators are federally regulated, with workers required to undergo background checks and fingerprinting.

"We don't want any pop-up or alternative child care centers," Burgum said, and suggested facilities could handle more children if needed in coming weeks.

However, Brandt said workers at child care centers and in-home facilities in recent days have been asking "What are we going to do?"

She sees the child care centers as being on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus.

A study from Child Care Aware of North Dakota last year found state-licensed child care facilities employ 5,800 people, Brandt said.

Kirsten Nelson, who runs the child care center for the Jeremiah Program for single moms going to college, also fears for her 10 staff members who care for 30 children under age 5.

"They are afraid they are going to be laid off," Nelson said. "Good teachers are hard to come by."

The center is now closed as the mothers are waiting to start college courses again.

State Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, also sent out a statement Monday night and said "childcare providers are some of the lowest paid employees in North Dakota while providing a service that is now more critical than ever.

"They often don’t have health insurance and are feeling very vulnerable right now," Hogan said.

Brandt said the state has encouraged them to stay open. "They've been saying 'please don't close,'" she said.

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