Tri-County Community Action Partnership shut down its Brainerd Head Start center for in-person learning Tuesday, Sept. 15, after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.

Penny Paul, director of the Head Start and Early Head Start programs for the community action agency, said Thursday all other staff members are under quarantine due to contact with the individual.

“We did the closure more for precautionary reasons,” Paul said during a phone interview. “We were in contact with public health, working with them on making sure we were following all the recommended guidelines.

“Even our staff were not in such close contact, but because we’re dealing with little ones and everything we wanted to ensure we’re being as safe as we can be.”

The closure impacts about 40 preschool-aged children who are part of the program, which is operating at 50% capacity to ensure smaller class sizes and social distancing. The center will remain closed for 14 days from the date of the positive test. Paul said the Head Start program was already offering both in-person and distance learning and was prepared for the eventuality of a COVID-19-related impact. She said staff members worked with families ahead of the return to in-person learning to ensure they had backup plans in case the center was closed.

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“One of the things that we did upfront was make sure parents knew that this could happen and to have a backup plan,” Paul said. “ … We knew in all likelihood there could be a day we would have to do that — whether cases were so high or we had a case — that this day would come.”

Teresa Carter, executive director of Tri-County Community Action Partnership, said while the impact seemed inevitable, she was disappointed the closure happened so soon after the start of the school year. The Head Start program began classes Sept. 8.

“This is really disheartening for the Brainerd site to be shut down again,” Carter said. “They (staff) were really glad to get back and seeing those children. And this is just another difficulty that they had to deal with and manage now that they’re back at home.”

Paul said the staff members in the Head Start program are teachers who’ve earned degrees, and teachers are taught to be in the classroom with students. The transition to distance learning was a difficult one, but she said she was proud of how they handled it.

“It was really amazing to see how staff really stepped up to provide services to families in a way that wasn’t in their comfort zone,” Paul said. “It has been very difficult to transition to a home learning environment for staff but they’ve done an excellent job.”

The Head Start and Early Head Start programs are more than preschool. Through those programs and others, Tri-County Community Action Partnership serves low-income families with children in Morrison, Todd and Crow Wing counties. There’s a parental education component to Head Start and Early Head Start as well, Paul said, ensuring the whole family receives health screenings on time including physicals, hearing and vision screenings and dental exams. Early Head Start also partners with child care providers to serve children from birth to age 3 with developmental support and education. Those eligible for all of these services have been significantly impacted by the pandemic, Paul said.

“We can’t serve a full-funded enrollment because we have to keep those class sizes smaller,” Paul said. “That’s really hard to turn away some of our families. … Our families are working poor. Of course with COVID, a lot of the jobs just aren’t there right now. … It makes families have a difficult time, and without having children in the classroom, those that are working now have to be home, too.”

Paul said despite all the challenges, staff are working very hard to make sure they’re providing as safe of an environment as they can and to provide necessary safety net services.

Crow Wing County surpasses 400 total cases

Adding 14 new laboratory-confirmed cases since Wednesday, Crow Wing County surpassed the 400-case mark Thursday. Crow Wing was one of 20 counties in the state that saw double-digit increases Thursday.

According to statistics supplied by the county, 340 of the 401 Crow Wing County residents who’ve been confirmed to have COVID-19 are no longer in isolation or beyond the period expected for isolation, including the 18 residents who’ve died from complications. This means there are 61 known active cases of the disease.

COVID-19 data as of Sept. 17

  • Aitkin — 69 (+1 since Wednesday, Sept. 16), with one death.

  • Cass — 120 (+3), with three deaths.

  • Crow Wing — 401 (+14), with 18 deaths.

  • Mille Lacs — 133 (+1), with three deaths.

  • Morrison — 184 (+3), with one death.

  • Todd — 472 (+1), with two deaths.

  • Wadena — 61 (+2).

NOTE: These numbers are cumulative since March 21 and many are out of isolation. The number of those no longer needing isolation is not reported on a county-level basis by the state.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.