Last June, Dave Newell left Nebraska to take the helm of the Children’s Home Society of Washington (CHSW), a major community-based services provider based in Seattle. He now finds him in the center of the nation’s worst coronavirus hotspot, trying to balance between the health of his staff, clients and organization.
A week into a completely new reality of CHSW, his advice to colleagues is simply assume the worst working conditions possible are going to visit upon you.
“It’s a tsunami, and it’s coming your way,” said Newell. “Go through stages of denial as quickly as you can.”
The gravity of the situation started to settle in for Newell in late February, when more than a dozen seniors at the nearby Life Care Center died.
“There was some awareness before that, but that really started to get people’s attention, including ours,” he said. “That was only a few weeks ago, God, this has moved so rapidly.”
Reflecting on last week’s torrent of policy changes in the state – as Washington closed schools and moved steadily toward a near shutdown of all non-essential business – Newell’s biggest regret is not going to the most drastic policies faster.
“My advice is to just understand how quickly this is moving,” he said. “We would have moved faster, to anyone who could work remotely in [the Seattle area] … we would have moved in that direction early last week. And virtual visits. Just move as fast as you can.”
Children’s Home Society of Washington handles a variety of services across the state that really center on human interaction. It oversees early learning centers, including Head Start programs, and home visiting services, where professionals are paired with new or expecting moms. It is the official partner of Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, a national venture to train adoption specialists in finding homes for older and high needs youth.
Today, all visits made by CHSW will be done virtually, no in-person meetings. The early learning programs in the Seattle area are all shuttered for the time being.
“One of the things we are worried about is, for public health reasons, that we’re going to have to suspend face-to face contact,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be able to do business as usual, for probably several months. But if we can’t maintain our funding streams, our sector is in peril.”
Newell said both public and private funders have been flexible on how to respond to the evolving situation. Relieving news came late last week from the federal government: Head Start grantees would be funded through the crisis, even under suspended services. Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the funding partner for Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, quickly approved a plan for virtual visits even though in-person frequent meetings is a key part of the model.
His priority now is preparing for what he anticipates to be serious challenges with staff in the coming weeks. For starters, while nobody at CHSW has tested positive yet, he said, “there is so little access to testing, we fully expect to start receiving reports as testing becomes more accessible.”
“Staff are going through this” in the same way as clients, he said. “Some will become sick, some have family that will become sick. Some of our staff are in those high risk categories.”
He said his concerns extend beyond the virus itself.
“I’m really worried about the mental health of both the kids and families, and our staff,” said Newell. “It’s going to be challenging … finding ways of bridging this social isolation.”
Note: This article was corrected to reflect that thus far, only early learning centers in the Seattle area have been suspended.