Some Pittsburgh child care centers remain open to support frontline medical workers and first responders

While most people hunker down to ride out the COVID-19 outbreak, Allegheny County’s first responders, health care professionals and other “essential workers” are able to stay on the job because of another essential workforce: child care providers.

It’s times like this when we realize what happens if parents can’t go to work, says Cara Ciminillo, executive director of the nonprofit Trying Together, the region’s intermediary between early childhood support systems and the practitioners.

Pennsylvania has 479 confirmed cases of the respiratory disease as of March 23 and last week reported its first fatality, an adult in Northampton County. The number of cases is expected to surge as testing widens.

“The essential workforce has to be able to work and child care is an essential backbone to our economy, to our community productivity,” Ciminillo says. “Someone has to support the essential workers like those on the medical frontlines. What we want first and foremost is for children to be cared for in the most high-quality way, where we’re not shorting on all the things we know children need, especially with broad community anxiety and nervousness.”

It’s no small task. Added to the child care duties is the daunting challenge of keeping the environment clean and germ-free for kids and staff.

Allegheny County has more than 64,000 children under age 5, according to the 2018 American Community Survey, thousands of whom spend time in child care programs. The county has more than 600 regulated (licensed/certified) child care programs and an additional 600-plus home-based family providers, according to Ciminillo.

Just how many child care centers are operating right now is a fluid situation, she says, since programs have been applying daily to the state for waivers to remain open.

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide shutdown of all nonessential businesses from March 16-31, including many large child care facilities, Head Start and pre-K programs, and private academic nursery schools. Some sought waivers to avoid closure because they serve children of health care workers, first responders, home health caregivers and nursing home staff.

Others who can stay open are noncommercial group homes with 12 or fewer children, certain after-school programs and home-based family providers.

Allegheny County’s Early Learning Resource Center offers updates on the COVID-19 situation on its website and has established a toll-free phone line, 888-340-3572, and email,, to handle questions — including child care facilities that are open.

Pennsylvania’s statewide mitigation efforts took effect last Tuesday.

Child care workers understand well the importance of health and safety practices, says Ciminillo. To guard against spreading the virus, they’re sanitizing according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

“Child care programs are built on a foundation of health and safety regulations, and it is everything from how many times to sanitize toys to an almost 10-step process for diapering, and embedded throughout all of that is constant hygiene,” Ciminillo says. “If there’s any field outside of the health care field that was built on the importance of hand-washing, child care would be your superheroes.”

How to take that to the next level during this health crisis? “Some folks are designating a staff person as the hourly sanitizer, who walks around the physical environment constantly doing sanitizing. Some programs have electrostatic sprayers.”

When children arrive each day for child care, staff members check their temperature and question the parents about potential exposure or travel, Ciminillo says. Most centers limit or prohibit outside visitors, opting for virtual consultations.

“Here’s what we know: We need our first responders, nurses, home health care workers, nursing home employees — we need all those people showing up for work, and they need the infrastructure and set of supports so that they can show up to work in their best way, not worrying about what’s happening at home,” says Ciminillo.