Partnership Keeps Little Learners Going, Open Door Doctors Caring for the Community


Dr. Kelvin Vu watches as his 5-year-old son Iver is checked in at Little Learners on a recent morning. - COURTESY OF LITTLE LEARNERS
  • Courtesy of Little Learners
  • Dr. Kelvin Vu watches as his 5-year-old son Iver is checked in at Little Learners on a recent morning.
Each weekday morning, mask-clad children wait at the door outside one of Little Learners’ childcare sites to have their temperatures taken by a nurse before walking inside.

It’s part of a new daily ritual for the youngsters, most of whom have parents working at Open Door Community Health Centers. Many attended Little Learners before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world around them. Others would normally be in school but now spend their days at the Arcata childcare center.

The coronavirus-tailored daycare is the extension of an already established partnership, with Little Learners owner Shannon Hall and Dr. Kelvin Vu — the Open Door’s associate chief medical officer — spearheading the program.

The newly adapted collaboration not only provides reliable childcare in a carefully monitored environment for healthcare workers on the front lines, but it has also been a lifeline for the daycare business amid shelter in place.

“It’s saved our business to be able to be open,” Hall said, adding that in return she is able to offer a safe landing spot for the children while their parents continue caring for the community.

That includes students who would normally be in a classroom, with Little Learners staff on hand to help them through the challenges of distance learning while relieving their parents of having to take on that task after a long day at work.

It’s not a simple undertaking but one built on the immense trust Hall and Vu, whose children attend Little Learners, have developed since he first approached her nearly three years ago about forming a partnership, embraced by the Open Door executive team, to help current staff as well as recruit and retain physicians.

Before COVID-19 ever entered the lexicon, Little Learners was already giving priority to the children of Open Door staff who were on the waiting list, providing spots to the children of any new physician who came on board, offering at-home care if a doctor’s child fell ill and staying open for the clinic staff’s children during the holidays to accommodate Open Door's schedule, as it is only closed a few days a year.

“It’s a model for Humboldt County, I think,” Hall said of the arrangement. “Having one point person is crucial and we’re both here to help the community, and these partnerships are crucial in a small community.”

Vu, an Orange County transplant along with his physician wife, Tara, who has been with Open Door since 2011, agrees. As a dual doctor family with two young sons, the Vus were all too familiar with the challenges parents face in finding childcare when Kelvin Vu approached Hall, whose youngest son — as it happens — was delivered by Tara Vu.

While the concept of a healthcare organization providing childcare for its staff is not a new one — Kelvin Vu notes he has physician friends in the Bay Area who are provided with the same type of service — it has paid dividends for Open Door, especially on the recruitment front, which is a constant struggle for Humboldt County health providers.

“It was huge,” Kelvin Vu said. “If we don’t make it easy for them to move here, they are less likely to come to our community.”

One of the biggest draws is not just the peace of mind that comes with having a deep confidence in the people with whom you have entrusted your children, but knowing that one of those staff members can come to care for your child at home.

“It takes a huge burden off us,” Vu said, saying the later aspect is especially important, affording him and his wife the ability to go to the office or hospital to see patients without worry, and adding that it's a “huge hit” with potential physician candidates that Open Door is looking to hire.

Emphasizing that he is just one link in the organization's effort and how much Little Learners “has been a huge part of this,” Vu said the long-standing connection he and Hall had already forged was key in moving quickly back in early March to keep the service operating once it became clear the community was going to be facing some drastic measures to slow COVID-19.

They immediately began setting up protocols and put healthcare directives in place before the shelter-in-place order was issued. Those include having a nurse stationed at the Valley West site’s door each morning to do symptom checks, limiting students to 10 to a room and keeping children separated from those in other rooms. Parents are also no longer allowed to enter with their children to limit exposure and those who are old enough need to wear masks, as do staff, who generally stay with the same cohort of children day after day for the same reason.

“We wanted to get ahead of this and, luckily, we had this partnership,” Kelvin Vu said. Hall agrees, noting she feels “very fortunate to have someone in the medical field” to call at any time with questions, above and beyond her weekly check-in with Vu “to assess what’s best as things develop.”

Right now, she’s serving 20 families at one location, down from 325 families at four sites before the shelter in place. And, Hall said, even when restrictions begin to ease, she’ll be limited to far less children than pre-coronavirus, which will make for a difficult transition for her, the families she serves and the business she’s run since 2008 after winning the Economic Fuel competition.

“It’s a big challenge,” Hall said. It’s going to be a hardship. … I’ve rewritten my whole business plan.”

Meanwhile, the Open Door-funded daycare program has allowed her to keep at least some of her doors open to help the families of essential workers, saying “it’s been huge.

Tory Starr, the executive director of Open Door, said the feeling is mutual.

“It makes us feel good to be able to help Shannon stay in business and she is able to help us,” he said.

Starr said he knows how important his staff is to the well-being of the county and the partnership with Little Learners is “one of many ways to support our staff during his time.”

“We are in the people business,” he said. “If we can’t take care of our people, they can’t take care of the people in the community. Our greatest resource is our human resource.”

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