A toddler, whose mother is a physician assistant at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast, gets her temperature checked Tuesday morning before coming to "Cornerspring Cares," a new day care and education program at the Cornerspring Montessori School in Belfast. The program is designed to help the children of health care providers, first responders and others.

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BELFAST, Maine — Staff at Cornerspring Montessori School in Belfast met a toddler at the door Tuesday morning with smiles — and a thermometer.

That’s because the private school, which closed its building to students when the COVID-19 pandemic began in Maine in earnest, is doing something special right now. On Monday, it began a new program called “ Cornerspring Cares,” which will provide child care and education to the children of healthcare providers, first responders and school families during the current healthcare crisis.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

They are front-line workers who do not have the option of doing their jobs from home, Sue Beemer, the head of school, said, but who also may not have someone at home to watch their children.

“It’s a real privilege to be doing this work right now,” she said. “It came to me early on that we have a facility and 42 acres where we could help our health care providers, our people on the front lines, and we should do that.”

All that space means that children can more easily spread themselves out in a bid for social distancing. Educators also are taking good care to minimize risk by working with a nurse to learn how to assess every child and every staff member every day. This will include taking temperatures to make sure people are not running a fever, and checking for other symptoms of the disease, which can include fatigue, body aches, sore throat and a dry cough.

The little girl who came to the school that morning had no temperature and was free to come inside. She’s the daughter of a physician assistant at Waldo County General Hospital, who didn’t want to share her name or the name of her daughter for safety reasons. But she did say that the brand-new program is a relief to her family. Right now, her husband is working from home and caring for their baby, and when their toddler was also there, it made it very difficult for him to take part in video conference calls for his job. But they didn’t want to ask the childrens’ grandparents to come up to help because that might be risky.

“I think it’s huge,” the physician assistant said of the program before heading in to a shift at the hospital. “It allows us to not have to expose [the kids] to older family members.”

It was a cold morning, and the toddler, who was the only child enrolled in the program that day, headed to the Chickadee Classroom to play with a baby doll and help “sweep” with a child-sized broom and dustpan. School officials, who are expecting more children to participate in the program as word gets out, are hoping that most of the time they will be able to stay outside.

“We can provide most of that care outdoors,” Beemer said. “Get them outside, where they’re healthy and they’re safe.”

[Coronavirus could overwhelm Maine hospitals. Social distancing can save beds and lives.]

Teachers have not been mandated to come to the school to work but are choosing to do so on a voluntary basis, according to Heather Sieger, an assistant teacher who was playing with the toddler in the Chickadee Room.

“I was feeling like I want to help the community in this time of need,” she said, adding that having a nurse come in to go over safety protocol helped ease some of her own concerns. “It made me feel a lot better.”

Cornerspring Cares is not free, although some entities, such as Waldo County General Hospital, are offering subsidies to employees to help offset the cost. The school is charging $60 per day for a child who will be there from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and $50 per day for a child who will attend from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. The program is open to children from two to 12 years old, who are “healthy and symptom-free,” and it is available from Monday through Friday.

Katrina Tozier, a nurse practitioner at Waldo County General Hospital and board member of the Montessori School, is acting as the program’s liaison to the hospital.

“I have four children under the age of seven, so I am one of the families that are in significant need of childcare during this pandemic,” she said. “I am so grateful that Cornerspring … has stepped up to meet this crucial need, allowing health care workers like [me] the ability to continue providing care to our patients at such an important time.”

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