Science Centers Step Up to Provide Childcare for Essential Workers

Even while their institutions’ doors are closed to the public, science and technology centers and museums are continuing to serve their missions and their communities. Here are two examples of ASTC members providing emergency childcare to the families of essential workers, using their expertise in engaging children in STEM and large, empty facilities.

Helping the Helpers in Missouri

The Discovery Center of Springfield (Missouri) learned from their local health department that one of the most important needs for their community would be to provide childcare for the families of healthcare workers and first responders. Just five days later, the 60,000-square-foot science center was able to reopen as a licensed emergency childcare center, available 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

The program expects to serve nearly 700 child enrollments by June 1, offering more than 71,000 hours of childcare and more than 28,000 meals and snacks—all free. Financial and in-kind support from donors has enabled this program to continue without cost to participating families. Among the families they have served are those with parents who work in intensive care units, mental health settings, environmental services, and law enforcement. The museum has actually brought on 25 additional staff, displaced workers from local businesses, to meet the demand.

The center is following applicable safety standards, and the local health department has promoted the museum’s work as an example of how to operate childcare facilities safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes are limited to 10 students, and each class is kept from interacting with others. A version of “air traffic control” tracks classes as they move through the facility to ensure that children don’t cross paths and that the museum’s team has the chance to clean all touch surfaces—including, but not limited to handrails and doorknobs—before the next class is cleared to enter the space. High-touch materials, such as toys and classroom supplies are switched out and fully sanitized after each use.

According to Rob Blevins, executive director of the Discovery Center, “we are not only surviving—we are thriving, and we are succeeding. Instead of just providing care, we are working to stop, slow, or eliminate the 2.5 years experts are predicting that it will take to recover educationally for these kids. Kids are excited to come here and sad to leave.”

The center has even found ways to incorporate some of the “normal” aspects of school, including spirit weeks, an Easter egg hunt compliant with public health guidance, Teacher Appreciation Week, and even graduation, complete with cap and lab coat.

Serving Essential Workers in Oregon

It’s a similar story at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland. They had the idea of using their facility and experience running camps and outreach programs to provide emergency childcare to essential workers. The plan went from proposal to reality in about ten days—so quick that the relevant licensing agency did not even have the application to run an emergency childcare center available when the program launched (they were given temporary approval to start in the meantime).

OMSI’s emergency childcare program has focused on serving the families of essential workers who work for Multnomah County, the City of Portland, and other local authorities and businesses; for example, they’ve served pharmacists, nurses, essential maintenance workers, those who work for the local transportation authority, and essential OMSI staff. The partnership with the county government has enabled OMSI to bring in cleaning staff—and supplies—from the local library system.

Since launching their program in early April, OMSI has served about 40 children each week, from age 4 to 11, in groups of 10 that are kept separate. The classes rotate through OMSI’s large facility with full cleaning of the space between each group.

In addition to keeping the OMSI staff busy, the program has given them a chance to test out new content and activities, all while keeping the students engaged and ensuring they keep up with their schoolwork. The museum has also incorporated a health and wellness component, giving the children a chance to recharge throughout the day.

Brian Berry, OMSI’s director of classes and statewide outreach, helps run the program. Berry said, “it’s been inspiring to see our community come together: our staff changing their focus within days and able to give back, our local governments working with us to make this idea a reality and devote resources, and the families of workers demonstrating their trust in OMSI to look after their children while they tend to their essential work.”

OMSI has been able make this a break-even program with a mix of foundation funding, subsidies from the county, and tuition far below the normal cost of childcare in the region. As OMSI transitions from emergency childcare to a modified summer camp program, they will continue to engage the families with a deeply discounted rate for the summer camp program.

We would like to know about all the innovative ways ASTC members continue to serve their missions and communities. Please share your story with us at and tag @ScienceCenters when you post on social media.

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