Back in March, when the escalating COVID-19 crisis shut down the New York City school system, Ovsanna Khachikian at the Department of Education was part of a team assigned a massive project: find a way to provide safe childcare for the kids of tens of thousands of first responders, essential workers and medical staffers -- and find a way to do it fast.

The mayor was really resisting closing schools, because he recognized...the cascading effect would essentially mean that if we closed schools, childcare would be a serious issue for our health care workers and our mass transit system and a number of our essential workers,” said Khachikian.

In less than a week after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the school closures on March 15th, Khachikian was able to establish, staff and operate Regional Enrichment Centers (RECs) that were set up in empty public school buildings across the city.

“At that time, we thought maybe this would last two to three weeks, we didn't know how long schools would be closed,” said Khachikian, who served as the DOE’s Executive Director of Regional Enrichment Centers. “We didn't know how long we would need to offer emergency childcare.” In the end, 2,500 DOE employees worked at 170 RECs for six months until school reopened in September, and ultimately served 14,000 children.

For her unprecedented work, the city has recognized Khachikian and 19 other employees for outstanding work during this year of crisis. The city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services and the Frederick O’Reilly Hayes Foundation is awarding the 20 employees a special pandemic edition of the city’s annual Frederick O’Reilly Hayes Prize, which comes with a $500 prize.

Other winners include Johanna Conroy and Heather Roiter from the Office of Emergency Management, who had to find hotel rooms and other living space for 30,000 adults who needed special accommodations during the pandemic — from essential workers who had to quarantine, patients discharged from hospitals, at-risk discharged prisoners, and adults with disabilities who needed to be removed from group homes.

Aside from the logistical challenges, a main issue was working for so long without seeing an end to the outbreak -- “we didn’t know how bad the pandemic would get,” said Conroy, who is Assistant Commissioner, Interagency Operations at the OEM.

“We didn't have a lot of information going into this. And the scale of it was just immense,” Conroy added. “We didn't really have a blueprint for it.”

Both she and Roiter, and others on their team, also contracted COVID-19 while working on the project, they said.

The RECs and the OEM’s hotel project have now served as models for other cities to learn from New York City’s experience.

“No other city had quite the dynamics that we were dealing with in New York City. We all of a sudden became the epicenter of the pandemic,” Khachikian said. “And very quickly we were in a position where we had to figure out how we were going to respond to this crisis in order to ensure that our health care workers, our frontline workers would be able to report to work to save lives while they entrusted us to keep their children safe.”

“I wish there was a model that we could have built from, but no -- we had to build it very quick,” said Roiter, Assistant Commissioner, Risk Reduction & Recovery at the OEM. “And obviously with New York being the heart of the outbreak here in the US, I think we built the (hotel) program very quickly, but we've been able to share a lot of our best practices with others around the country since then.”

The New York City school system also drew on the RECs as a testing ground for the DOE’s plans to reopen schools in the fall.

“As we formulated policy for RECs, we would then think about lessons learned to adapt those policies for reopening,” Khachikian said.

And should the worst case scenarios revisit New York City, the OEM is ready to deploy the program again.

“This is a model that we know that we can dust off, and take off the shelf and do again if we need to,” Roiter said. “Because we did learn a lot from doing it in the first wave.”

A full list of the city’s honored employees can be found here.