RED WING — Amid all the uncertainties in the pandemic, having Kids Junction makes all the difference for essential workers, parents say.

Red Wing Community Education has coordinated school-age children for years. Typically, that has meant child care before and after school, on the occasional snow day and during the summer. Field trips, fun, games.

Enter COVID-19.

On Sunday, March 15, Gov. Tim Walz ordered school districts to start providing free care for children of Tier 1 and Tier 2 essential workers. Some districts had two days to prepare, but Red Wing Public Schools were canceled that Monday.

Kids Junction coordinator Justin Plein, Community Education Director Dawn Wettern and Food Service Director Brent Lexvold kicked into high gear that Sunday, and the following morning Kids Junction opened with 22 kids plus a host of health measures in place. The program has averaged 55-60 children ever since, operating 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.

“KJ has been a lifesaver for my family,” said Laura Anderson, juvenile program coordinator at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing. “I’ve been required to report to work through this pandemic, and having the structure and help -- especially with distance learning -- has been extremely helpful. Even though times are different, my children enjoy social distance and creativity the staff and program have provided during these changing times.”

Like Anderson, Elise Goebel is a Tier 1 essential worker. Her husband also holds an essential job -- the list ranges from health care to infrastructure -- so they quickly turned to Kids Junction.

“We have used Kids Junction for the past two summers and because of the positive experiences that our children have had, we didn't hesitate to send them there during the coronavirus,” Goebel said.

Beyond the child care, staff members have guided children as they complete distance learning … right in Sunnyside School. Goebel notes that the support and encouragement helped her to gain the confidence he needed to complete the assignments in a timely fashion while allowing him to have fun after the work was completed.

“It was a nice balance of both worlds,” she said.

Brenden Reinhart digs into a gardening activity at Kids Junction, which is operating solely out of Sunnyside Elementary School during the COVID-19 pandemic and was open only to parents of essential workers during the last 12 weeks of the academic year. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Community Education
Brenden Reinhart digs into a gardening activity at Kids Junction, which is operating solely out of Sunnyside Elementary School during the COVID-19 pandemic and was open only to parents of essential workers during the last 12 weeks of the academic year. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Community Education

Plein said students get one 45-minute block in the morning and one in the afternoon to complete work assigned by their teachers. Distance Learning takes place by grade in the media center and computer lab. Kids Junction leads art projects, walks outdoors, games, documentaries, stories, drumming and more to fill the day.

He splits children into groups of six to eight with at least two staff people. They keep kids in the same group as much as possible with the same staff each day.

He said one of the biggest challenges has been social distancing.

“Children build relationships with staff and look up to them; they want to be near them. Our staff care about the kids and when a child is upset it is hard to stay six feet away,” Plein said.

“Another challenge is the unknown. Just like everything else going on, things are constantly changing. Our staff have been great about the ever-changing landscape and adapting to what is best for the children.”

Safety lessons in action

School nurses work the check-in area. They take the temperature of each child, ask screening questions and sign in every child. They also have become instructors in a way.

“We have a nurse visiting with each group daily talking about ways to stay healthy and giving the kids an opportunity to ask questions they have regarding what is going on,” Plein said.

The first thing children do after hanging up their backpacks and jackets is wash their hands. Red Wing Community Education staff are stationed outside the bathroom to keep the kids separated and ensure that they wash for at least 20 seconds.

Each classroom has disinfectant spray, clean rags, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes. Whenever a group is done in a room, one staff stays to clean everything that got used. At night, an ionizer gets into the nooks and crannies.

“Travis Krig and the entire custodial staff at Sunnyside have been amazing. They do a deep clean of every room we use daily,” Plein said.

The food service provides breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. Children eat in shifts to limit the number of people in the cafeteria at one time. Everywhere the students go, the floors are marked and chairs set apart to help prevent the highly contagious virus from spreading.

“Kids Junction gave us peace of mind knowing that our children were being cared for by individuals who understood their need for educational support, games, activities and time to just be kids,” Goebel said.

Anderson sees the difference this has made for her fourth-grader and kindergartener. “The light still shines bright in both of our children because of the positivity and fun they are having at KJ Monday-Friday," she said.