Jeff Schnaufer | First 5 LA Writer & Editor

When First 5 LA ECE Program Officer Jaime Kalenik and her new husband decided to scale Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, she knew climbing 19,341 feet this October would take a lot of hard work.

Then, this spring, another challenge suddenly arose: COVID-19, which would seriously task the early care and learning system in L.A. County. Thousands of child care providers struggled to find supplies. Unemployed or work-from-home parents pulled their children from child care, prompting financial fears for many providers. Essential workers scrambled to find child care.  

For Jaime, the pandemic meant the cancellation of her honeymoon and put a question mark on her Kilimanjaro trek. But it also meant a challenge she could rise to meet.  

Fortunately, Jaime was working under the leadership of ECE Director Becca Patton, an avid trailblazer herself. Putting in lots of hard work, Becca, Jaime and their ECE department teammates forged a path with First 5 LA’s ECE partners to help create the Los Angeles County Early Care and Education COVID-19 Response Team.  

The following interview reveals how the ECE Department utilized a “systems-thinking” approach and its experience as a convener to help guide the county ECE system over the mountain of challenges caused by COVID-19.  


Q.    How has the pandemic altered your approach to our work? How has your focus remained the same?    

Becca: I wouldn’t say the pandemic has altered our approach to our work, but the kind of work we’re doing is completely different.

It became clear quickly that in the middle of the pandemic we were also going to be in the middle of a child care crisis, knowing that essential workers needed to continue working to keep us all fed and healthy and that they would need child care providers. But that a lot of our child care providers, who were deemed essential themselves, were closing. Operating a child care facility became significantly more difficult and more challenging. Everything from maintaining appropriate social distancing with children under 5 to needing their own personal protection equipment to needing their own supplies.

Recognizing all of this, county ECE partners including First 5 LA wanted to reduce duplication of work and decided to come together to provide one coordinated countywide response. Because we’re a trusted partner, First 5 LA played the important role of neutral convener and collaborator. And because we have a bird’s eye view of the ECE system, we could see where the gaps were and what needed to be fixed. We added logistical support and extra juice in terms of communication and policy work. Since we have such longstanding partnerships, we were able to work with these partners quickly and in a way that produced a better-quality result.

The result was the creation of the L.A. County ECE COVID-19 Response Team. The group includes the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the L.A. County Department of Public Health–Office for the Advancement of Early Care and Education, First 5 LA, Los Angeles Unified School DistrictChild Care Alliance of Los AngelesGreater Los Angeles Education FoundationL.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s officeChild360, the Center for Strategic Partnerships, and county resource and referral agencies.

First 5 LA ECE Program Officer Jaime Kalenik

Jaime: When we’re talking about what we’re doing differently, it was the shift to meeting the current needs of the essential workforce and our emergency coordination. What stayed the same is our values of supporting a mixed delivery system and finding the approaches to child care that are best for families.

The way we’ve approached our work has set us up as a systems thinker, and this problem has needed a systems thinking approach. The relationships we have built and the muscles we have exercised in thinking through tough problems and how systems work together has set us up well to help in this effort.

Q.    How are you engaging partners to address inequities (exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic) as part of our response?  

 Jaime: Everything we are doing is in partnership with the L.A. County ECE COVID-19 Response Team.

When we were thinking about inequities, we were trying to make the information we’re providing as accessible as possible. We have a lot of different information streams. We’ve been doing community calls every other week. We have a website that LACOE has put up that is specific to child care providers, parents of young children and essential workers. And we have an email address where any providers who can’t access the information they need through those other streams can email their questions. We’re also continuing to prioritize low-income essential workers when we’re talking about subsidized care.

And we have a gap right now when we look at data on the response: who has been served, who hasn’t been served, where are they? That’s what we’re tackling next, to make sure we have all that information, so we can further focus on the inequities that remain.

Q.    How are you working with other departments?  Are there examples of stronger coordination and integration across First 5 LA that you’d lift up?   

 Jaime: Our Strategic Partnerships Department has been the liaison with the Partnership for Early Childhood Investment and they’ve helped coordinate the ask of philanthropy in line with what the L.A. County COVID-19 ECE Response Team has designed. Our Policy Department, in liaison with the ECE Coalition and Becca, took the message about what’s needed statewide and to our local L.A. delegation in many different visits with policymakers. And we worked with the Communications Department in setting up the resource pages for parents and for ECE providers, as well as some of the work publicizing our community calls.

Our Community Relations Department also provided us an opportunity to use what we are learning through the Response Team work to inform L.A. City Council of potential ways to support families and child care providers using local CARES Act funding.

 Becca: We also worked closely with the Family Supports and Communities Departments and together determined the needs of our providers and families and strategized on distribution.

Q.    In what ways has the pandemic highlighted or amplified the work (or results areas) of your department?  

Jaime: What I’ve been reflecting on is one of our results: children have high-quality early learning experiences before kindergarten entry. This pandemic has shown that child care is the essential backbone of the economy, of any sort of emergency response you’re going to have. There’s obviously no recovery without child care.

Becca: The ECE Department has spent a lot of time thinking through what we want the local ECE system to look like — about governance and the right role for the right entity. Because we have a vision for that already, we were able to make that come to fruition in the response to this pandemic.

Q.  Do you have any victories, challenges or anecdotes based on these impacts/changes that you’d like to share?

First 5 LA ECE Director Becca Patton

Becca: When it came to ensuring that the essential workforce had somewhere to go get child care, we did a lot of coordinating and running calls. This helped the resource and referral agencies put together an enhanced child care referral process. They also set up a hospital liaison committee so there is a direct person to call if anyone working in the hospital needs access to child care.

As part of that, the resource and referral agencies are surveying all their providers in the county weekly to see who is open and how many spaces they have.

We engaged in policy work to make sure we had more money in our voucher system available to essential workers who qualified. Advocacy by the ECE Coalition, First 5 LA and many other partners helped secure substantial funding for child care.

Jaime: The Response Team is coordinating the countywide acquisition and distribution of supplies to resource & referral agencies who are then distributing the supplies to ECE providers in their service areas. The Response Team has secured over 1.5 M diapers, 300,000 face masks, 75,000 8-ounce hand sanitizers, 32,000 packs of wipes and 50,000 1-quart hand soaps from different sources including Baby2Baby and First 5 California.

Through the efforts of the L.A. County COVID-19 Response Team, 10,849 child care referrals were provided from March to the end of June. During that same time, 6,215 children of essential workers were enrolled in child care through emergency vouchers.

Q.    Would you like to share any personal challenges you have faced and tips for overcoming them?   

Jaime: I had this trip planned in October to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It helped to have some sort of goal to be training for. We’ve recently postponed the Kilimanjaro trip.  It’s too bad, but the mountain will still be there when this is all over.