The Discovery Center of Springfield, under normal circumstances, is a place where people of all ages can learn about science and have fun while exploring the facility’s many exhibits. And it’s usually a place where kids can take classes focused on STEM: Science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But these are different times, and the Discovery Center is serving a different purpose now.
It’s been a little more than two weeks since the Discovery Center closed its doors to the public and opened its doors as a childcare center.
On any given day right now, about 70 kids are at the science center while at least one of their parents works in the healthcare field.
The Discovery Center’s executive director, Rob Blevins, said the childcare started after a conversation with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department about when to close the facility because of COVID-19.
“One of the things we learned during that conversation was that one of the pain points or things keeping people up at night was not knowing what to do when the schools closed with the children of healthcare workers," said Blevins.
Healthcare workers pay nothing to send their children to the Discovery Center’s childcare, which is open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.
It’s an expensive venture and labor intensive. Blevins said there are five or six employees at all times who are on disinfecting duty.
“Handrails before the next group walks through. The bathroom before the next group uses the bathroom,” he said.
The children are divided up into classes of 10 students each, and a logistics person makes sure those classes don’t interact with one another.
“It kind of works like a freight shipper maybe or an air traffic controller where they’re actually controlling whether or not a classroom is going to be moving down the same stairwell or the same hallway at the same time, and it keeps them from running into each other and then it also allows us to disinfect everything in between use,” said Blevins.
The students are fed three meals a day plus snacks.
Teachers have to be paid, and there has to be someone at the front desk to answer phones. There are two to three nurses on site at all times.
To operate at full capacity, the childcare effort would cost approximately $10,000 a day. Currently, Blevins said they’re operating at about half their capacity at a cost of $5,000 to $6,000 a day. They run on donations, and those are still needed.
He said they would prefer that children be at home with a parent or other family member.
“But for some families there’s just no way that they can keep serving the community in their vital role in healthcare, the first responder, and have childcare at the same time, so we have to do that for them," he said.
And Blevins knows they have a big responsibility. These kids, he said, are going through a lot of stress. They’ve had a lot of changes in their lives. And so, they want them to feel as normal as possible while they’re at the Discovery Center, "especially at a time when their parents are going off to possible exposure to this virus. Having that stressor on top of everything else is unfathomable,” he said.
They offer lots of "cool" programming for the children, according to Blevins. They’ve chosen lessons that either use disposable materials or items that can be sanitized between uses. And they’re making sure the kids, from at least seven different school districts, are keeping up with lessons and online classes.
Lessons from the Discovery Center’s instructors, which are piped into the center’s classrooms via Facebook Live, are also available to parents who are navigating the home school process. There are three a day, divided into the different grade levels at the Discovery Center: Ages 5-8, 8-11 and 11-14. That allows them to focus not only on the kids in childcare their now but also those who can’t come to the center because it’s closed, according to Blevins.
They’re working to make sure kids don’t get behind in their learning, he said. So, they’re offering educational opportunities that combine various subject areas.
“So, you’ve got a science class but then you’re going to write about the science that you’re doing, and you’re going to have some reading assigned about it, and we’re going to do some artwork about it, and we’re going to talk about the history of this specific thing,” he said.
They’re working to get some community members to provide online, individual tutoring for the students.
Blevins expects the childcare to continue until at least the end of May.
He said there’s a need for it.
“The shocking part through all this is just how much help is needed for these families and to think about the vulnerable population that we have right now that are on the front lines helping us as a community and fighting for us. And it’s just really, really gratifying and neat for us. We’re very proud that we can offer this service to them,” said Blevins.
A little more than a week ago, a mom came in with three of her kids and said she’d been called back to her job in the healthcare field. If she didn’t find someone to care for them, she was going to be fired. There were just enough openings for those kids because another parent, whose spouse was at home after being laid off because of the coronavirus, no longer needed childcare.
Blevins recalls stories like those and said “it’s easy to work hard when you know that it matters.”
To register for the Discovery Center's childcare, click here.