The Essentials: Day care stays open, but with more kids and 'a lot more strict' germ control

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Shandy Mehl has made changes to her home day care during the pandemic; the coronavirus has also meant some changes for her family, including Braelyn (holding Lolah, left), Shandy, husband Luke and Bryton (holding Noah). (Submitted photo)

Editor’s note: Several residents have risked their own safety and/or overcome personal obstacles in order to help keep the community going during the coronavirus pandemic. This series provides a glimpse into their lives and work. They are ... The Essentials.

Just a couple of months ago, the little ones at Shandy Mehl’s home day care would toddle into her entryway in the mornings with mom, dad, or grandma or grandpa in tow. They’d all give each other nice long hugs goodbye, Mehl and the other grownups would enjoy some friendly small talk, and then the kiddos would run off to play with their friends.

Today, with all the sanitization and social distancing rules that have been put in place because of COVID-19, the routine at Baby Toes Daycare has been turned upside down.

Parents and grandparents are no longer allowed to enter Mehl’s home at all, and when the kids go in, the first thing they have to do — before running off to play with their friends — is wash their hands (while singing their ABCs to make sure they’re washing long enough).

Mehl asked the parents she works with to strictly limit their kids’ exposure to other people: Don’t bring them to the grocery store, for example, and don’t take them to public playgrounds. She no longer allows blankets or toys to go back and forth between her home and the kids’ homes. She stopped handwashing dishes and now puts everything in the dishwasher instead. Disinfectant and hand sanitizer are always out and within reach.


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“I’m a huge germ freak anyway,” Mehl said with a laugh during a phone interview last month. “But I’ve been a lot more strict now.”

She has to be, she said, in order to protect the health of her day care families as well as her own family: her husband, Luke, and their two kids, son Bryton, 13, and daughter Braelyn, 10.

When Minnesota’s stay-at-home order was announced at the end of March, many licensed day care providers in Becker County opted to reduce their operations or close temporarily, for safety’s sake. But Mehl said she decided to stay open for the sake of her day care families as well as her own, “Because I need to work, and they need to work.”

“Being a day care provider, I’m basically a means of support for not only the children, but all their families, too,” she explained. “We’re a working community, and we’re working together … to make it all work.”

Mehl is "making it all work" by constantly adapting, adjusting and operating within the boundaries of the new normal. While she’s lost a couple of families because of COVID-19 safety concerns, layoffs or job changes, most of the parents she works with are considered essential workers and their kids are still in her care during the day.



She actually has more kids now than she did before, as a few of the older siblings of her regular preschoolers are now spending their days with her, too, distance learning from her home. Her own two kids, of course, are also home with her now. That’s meant spending more time with those older kids, helping them with their school work.
Still, Mehl’s managed to keep her daily routine at the day care pretty much the same as always. Her preschoolers are still learning the same curriculum and getting the same meal times, snack times, play times and nap time as before. They’re learning their colors, shapes, numbers and letters. They’re getting outside to play. They’re growing and learning, and she’s still preparing them for kindergarten.

“I don’t make them feel like we have a lack of anything,” Mehl said. “On a daily basis, it really hasn’t changed much.”

The kids are aware that things are different now, though, and some ask a lot of questions about the coronavirus, she said. She doesn’t shy away from talking about it with them, but she’s very careful not to “put the fear in them” when she does.

A love for caring for kids

Originally from Valhalla, N.D., Mehl grew up as a middle child among five sisters, and started babysitting at the age of 11. That’s how her love of caring for kids started, she said, and that love has never gone away.

She went to college in Spearfish, S.D., for early childhood special education, but ended up moving to Detroit Lakes to live with her sister after getting into a bad car accident and fracturing part of her spine.

“I wasn’t able to walk and needed to rehab, so I lived with her until I could get back on my feet,” she said.

She met her husband during that time, who graduated from M State in Detroit Lakes. The couple moved away for a while, but returned after their son was born, to be closer to family.

“When I had my first child, we lived in Sioux Falls, S.D., and went through three day cares in a matter of just a few months — it was horrible,” Mehl said. The care was unreliable, she wasn’t “meshing” with providers, and one wasn’t even following basic licensing rules.


“It’s kind of scary; it’s a big deal to find a good day care,” she said. “I knew then that I needed to be the one to raise my own kid, but I couldn’t afford to just stay at home, so I decided to help other families raise their kids, too.”

That was about 14 years ago. She started her home day care, Baby Toes Daycare, and has been at it ever since.

“I love it,” she said. “My families are great, and the kids are great. They keep me young.”

She’s appreciating the kindness and flexibility of her day care families now more than ever, she said, and she’s heard from them that they’re grateful she’s still open during the pandemic so they can keep working.

“It’s very helpful to have good families,” Mehl said. “I find if you’re not feeling appreciated, you feel a little bit crummy, and then that weighs on everybody.”

Some of the parents are even bringing over extra rolls of toilet paper sometimes, or bottles of hand sanitizer, though Mehl said the initial shortages of these kinds of products have eased up. A Becker County Daycare Crisis Group formed in the midst of the shortages, finding and delivering needed items like bleach, paper towels, bread and milk to day care providers, and Mehl said that’s really helped.

“We’re all learning together, and moving forward through this together,” she said.

The essentials of Shandy Mehl

Title: Owner of Baby Toes Daycare


Job duties: Provide care for preschool-aged children in her home; prepare meals, provide physical activity, and teach the lessons and life skills necessary for kindergarten readiness.

The impact of social distancing: Her day care hours have changed slightly, and she’s also caring for more kids now. Mehl's own children are distance learning from home now, as well.

For her personally, social distancing has meant staying home a lot more, as it has for everyone. She said she’s looking forward to the day when she can “just not be in my house” again. She’d like to go out to a restaurant with her husband, or take the kids bowling, and she’s looking forward to getting her hair and nails done.

What you’ve done to cope: She visits with friends on Zoom to get some social time, and also makes sure to have time for herself, “because right now, taking care of yourself should be your number one concern so you can help others. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not taking care of others.” She does yoga and simple stretches, tries to get outside as much as possible, and loves to read and journal.

What you’ll remember most about this time: The positive interactions with parents, and the creative things she’s done with the kids to work through challenges, such as making out-of-the-ordinary meals when the usual staples (bread, eggs, milk) are running low.

Favorite quote: “I find if I just say ‘thank you’ over and over in my head, it really shifts my mood. Otherwise I hop on Google and search for gratitude quotes … I try to keep positive thoughts in my head .. I might say ‘thank you’ 40 or 50 times to make it stick.”

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