Over the past few weeks, Carlton County has seen some of the steepest rises in confirmed COVID-19 cases in northern Minnesota.

Nearly all the counties in the area saw record cases Thursday, Nov. 5, and Carlton County had the steepest increase of all. Cloquet Public Schools officials announced Wednesday, Nov. 4, the district was moving to a distance learning model for at least two weeks.

While fewer children overall will be in school, Cloquet’s Community Education program will see more students participating in its “Kids’ Corner” program, said Cloquet Community Education director Ruth Reeves.

An executive order by Gov. Tim Walz mandates districts provide care for children ages 12 and under at no cost for those dubbed “Tier 1” essential workers during regular school hours if a district moves to a distance learning model. What the governor’s executive order didn’t do was provide funding to pay extra staff to help with increased numbers.

Hurley, 5, shows off the Lego creation he made during a stay in Cloquet Public Schools' "Kids Corner" school-age childcare program. Kids Corner, part of Cloquet's community education program, provides childcare to certain essential workers at no charge during school hours. Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal
Hurley, 5, shows off the Lego creation he made during a stay in Cloquet Public Schools' "Kids Corner" school-age childcare program. Kids Corner, part of Cloquet's community education program, provides childcare to certain essential workers at no charge during school hours. Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal

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The plan was, with far fewer kids in school, district paraprofessionals could help with additional child care needs, but that’s only partially true,” Reeves said.

Paraprofessionals help assemble packets to send home to students, distribute lunches from buses and, most importantly, continue to work with high needs students as much as possible — even during distance learning.

“All these duties didn't just evaporate,” Reeves said. “So while yes, there is some labor to put toward that, it's not like 100% of paras are just duty free. So what we are doing in Cloquet — what a lot of districts are doing — is we're using our Kids Corner staff and some community education staff, who are paid by the hour, so there is a direct cost in that with no fees coming in.”

Lillyana, 6, gets ready for a game of checkers waiting for her mom to pick her up from Cloquet Public Schools' "Kids Corner" school-age child care program. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)
Lillyana, 6, gets ready for a game of checkers waiting for her mom to pick her up from Cloquet Public Schools' "Kids Corner" school-age child care program. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)

Cloquet received some money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act this spring, but much of that went to other expenses, like additional bus routes. What’s more, the Kids Corner program is certified by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, making it eligible for a number of grant programs.

“We just learned we'll be getting $6,000 in grant money, which is really, really nice,” Reeves said. “But I can tell you, the cost of running those programs is far beyond that. But still, I'm really grateful for that, and they did say there could be another round coming in December — so every little bit helps.”

Reeves was hesitant to call the money the Cloquet Community Education program spent a loss, but estimated it invested an extra $27,000 in child care in the spring to help bridge the gap between what paraprofessionals could do and the responsibilities of the Kids Corner program.

The Cloquet program focused on the younger child care programs it specializes in and left as much of the older program to paraprofessionals, who are more familiar with school-age children.

As cases surge in Carlton County, Reeves said she believes her program is ready for additional child care responsibilities after the chaotic situation early in the pandemic.

“We took the younger kids because we’re just set for them more,” Reeves said. “That just kind of helped carry the load for everybody. In the spring it was a very confusing time — they didn’t know a lot about the virus. We’ve since learned a lot more.”

Esko Community Education director Michele Carlson said using her staff to help out with child care in the spring caused a significant loss to the program as schools scrambled to provide care during a chaotic situation. The district had three days to prepare for an extended distance learning scenario and, much like Cloquet, the burden fell to community education staff, but Carlson said the alternative would have been more painful.

“Esko could have laid off my staff completely, and they chose not to do that,” Carlson said. “I told all my staff that even though we were taking a hit on our budget, we all could have been sitting at home not working. I think for Esko to come out and say ‘We want your help running this program, we’re going to pay you all the way through this,’ that was, I think, a very, very fair thing to do.”

Several children in Cloquet Public Schools' "Kids Corner" school-age child care program enjoy a snack Tuesday, Nov. 10, at Zion Lutheran Church. School districts are required to provide child care to certain essential workers if they move to a distance learning model. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)
Several children in Cloquet Public Schools' "Kids Corner" school-age child care program enjoy a snack Tuesday, Nov. 10, at Zion Lutheran Church. School districts are required to provide child care to certain essential workers if they move to a distance learning model. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)

Carlson said the Esko program’s loss was less than the amount Cloquet spent in the spring, but she wouldn't give the Pine Journal specific numbers.

In a Nov. 6 Facebook post, the Esko program said it received no money from the state to operate the Cool Kids program. Monthly expenses are more than $10,000, yet revenue is approximately $4,000. In a bid to remain financially viable, the program is asking people to purchase gift certificates for future classes and offerings.

Cloquet, however, had a fund balance cushion to offset the extra spending, according to Reeves. In addition, Cloquet has other revenue streams, like a contract with the city of Cloquet to operate the summer programs at Pinehurst Park — including the sand bottom pool and beach. The beach didn’t open this summer, so there was no programming. However, the program’s contract with the city makes it revenue neutral, so the community education program didn’t take a financial hit as a result.

The program has been able to keep some classes going with greatly reduced numbers at the Cloquet Middle School pool. Activities include private swim lessons, limited lap swimming and some other programs where only a single person or small group are in the facility at a time.

When Esko moved to distance learning Monday, paraprofessionals carried the child care load for Tier 1 workers. The Cool Kids program for school-age students offered care for non-essential workers for $40 per day.

In addition, the program offers extended day care for children of Tier 1 workers at a discounted rate. The cost for care before school from 6:30-8:15 a.m. is $5 and $10 for care after school from 3:15-6 p.m.

As students from both districts spent time away from traditional classrooms, the community education programs are better prepared to use paraprofessionals in their child care services. However, there is no way to prepare for the unanticipated scenarios the pandemic and distance learning throw at them.

“We’ve been planning for months on the what ifs and, some of it, you just have to get there,” Reeves said. “You have to kind of build the boat as you’re sailing because you can’t anticipate all the what ifs — you just do the best you can. Then at some point you just have to turn it over and we’re gonna have to let the issues arise and then we try to address them.”