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New Players Fill Child-Care Gap as Schools Go Remote
A student works on schoolwork earlier this month at the Wharton Dobson Club in Wharton, Texas, part of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston. For a small fee, the organization is offering a full-day program that provides students a safe place to complete their remote learning classwork and socialize with friends. Courtesy of Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston

Hurricane Sandy nearly wiped out the dance studio Carrie Daniels founded 21 years ago. The coronavirus pandemic threatened to do it again, as worried families stayed away.

But the Take a Bow Performing Arts Center, in New York City's Brooklyn borough, is remaking itself this school year as a "remote learning help center." It will support up to 15 students at a time as they work through online lessons from their schools in a safe and socially distanced way, Daniels said. When the virtual school day is done, the center will offer dance, drama, yoga, meditation, and other activities.

"You've got to make these kids feel safe, you've got to let these parents know they're safe," Daniels said.

Millions of students are enrolled in school districts that are starting the 2020-21 school year offering only "hybrid" or fully remote classes. And with months to plan this time around, school districts have promised more robust remote learning, with more opportunities for teachers to interact directly with students.

But a long day of remote learning still leaves parents and caregivers juggling child care and work.

Enter programs like the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Clubs, which have long provided before- and after-care at schools. They are now shifting to offering socially distanced "learning camps" during school hours all over the country, using their own facilities as well as community spaces.

Smaller family child-care providers are offering such services as well. And enterprising businesses that have not typically provided full-day care during the school year, such as Daniels with her dance studio, are seeing an opportunity to help fill the child-care gap as well.

It's not quite school, but it works for parents looking for options, providers say. But at the same time, it raises the same questions of safety that have driven the discussion around school reopenings. If traditional face-to-face instruction has been deemed too risky for teachers and students, are these newly formed care programs any safer?

That question has been particularly pointed for providers who care for infants, toddlers, and small children. Many of those small businesses have had to stay open to survive through the economic downtown. Running on thin profit margins in the best of times, they've struggled to pay for all the safety changes required of them, said Ashley C. Williams, a senior policy analyst for the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley.

And it's some of the same small preschools and day-care programs that parents are turning to now to help care for their school-age children.

"What is the difference between an early educator and a teacher?" Williams said. "Why is child care expected to carry or save the economy as if early educators are any more immune to the coronavirus?"

But providers who normally offer day camp and overnight camp programs say they have developed a safety net of precautions that, when followed diligently, can keep kids and camp employees safe while still providing the social outlets that children need.

Those protections, outlined in a field guide developed by the American Camp Association and the YMCA of the USA, include mask wearing, frequent hand washing, and keeping children in small cohorts rather than allowing them to mix freely in large groups. Many remote learning support programs say they're adhering to those standards.

The camp providers who have followed the field guide "feel a comfort in being able to run these programs as well as they ran their day camps this summer," said Tom Rosenberg, the executive director of the American Camp Association. Some well-publicized virus outbreaks this summer occurred where the guidelines were not being followed completely or consistently, he said. Rosenberg said a camp director told him that "'good enough' is not good enough in this case."

The variety of providers that have sprung up to offer child care during remote learning speaks to the need. In some cases, it is the districts themselves that are offering the programs. Adams 12 Five Star Schools, a district in Thornton, Colo., plans to offer a free "learning pod" experience supervised by district staff to students, based on academic and family need. Kim Walsh, who is directing the program, said parents have shown tremendous interest, even for their middle and high schoolers.

Seeing how many district staff members have stepped forward to say they want to be part of the pod program has been "a huge point of pride," Walsh said.

Larger providers are also in the mix.The Boys and Girls Clubs of America has 1,300 sites, mostly in urban areas, that plan to offer what they are calling "learning pods" or "safety zones," according to Misty Miller, the organization's senior vice president for organizational development. How many children will ultimately be served is still in flux, since programs have to reduce capacity for safety.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Houston opened its "Blue Learning Labs" a few days ago, with the ultimate goal of serving around 600 children and youth, said Kevin Hattery, who is CEO of the Houston clubs. More than 50 different school districts operate within its region.

Keeping in line with the Boys and Girls Clubs mission of serving children from low-income families, the fee is about $30 for eight weeks, Hattery said. But providing these programs is an expensive service.

"There is not a funding mechanism that is there to support what we're doing. Our budget is ballooning significantly to help fill this gap," Hattery said.

Peter Rosario, the president and CEO of Ocean County YMCA in Toms River, N.J., has moved the exercise equipment out of his facility in order to fit more kids in.

In a normal year, the YMCA would provide before- and after-care for 1,000 children attending the Toms River, Lakewood, Manchester, and Berkeley Township districts. With the distancing and space restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, it hopes to serve 85 to 90 children at the YMCA itself, with another 50 to 75 in school buildings. Families would pay $250 a week for a child, including before- and after-care.

"We're so blessed to have school districts that are phenomenal partners," Rosario said. The YMCA was already used to providing academic enrichment activities to children through summer programs, which it hopes to continue during these new child-care programs, Rosario said.

And that's important, because "this is going to be the next two to three years that we have to work together to rebuild our kids. The amount of learning loss will not be made up just through school."

Zoila Carolina Toma, who runs a home-based child-care program in Signal Hill, Calif., is expanding her program to support children engaged in online learning. In addition to her two children, a 3rd grader and a 1st grader, she can care for eight more. She's planning to charge around $200 a week. Her neighborhood is served by the Long Beach district in Los Angeles County.

But expanding beyond her typical population of babies and preschoolers comes with a number of costs. She's purchased extra laptops and headphones in case the students' devices are broken. She's hired an employee with the skill to help troubleshoot computer glitches. She's even had to buy new furniture; chairs that are suitable for toddlers won't work for older children expected to sit and pay attention for an hour or more at a stretch.

"Most of the children, they grow with me" and then leave when they start school, she said. "I have had cases where some of the parents are reaching back to me now."

She added, "I am not going to say no." For one thing, she said that keeping sibling groups together-for example, a preschool age child and an older sibling-helps prevent the spread of the virus as well as providing a safe place for the child to learn. But all of the extra supplies add up, she said. And she also wonders about juggling schedules, if one child has a break while another is still supposed to be paying attention to schoolwork.

"You don't need to change diapers, you don't have to feed them with a spoon, but there's other challenges that comes with a school-age child," Toma said.

For Take A Bow, all of this is new. One of Daniels's longtime students, now a dance instructor, is also a newly minted elementary school teacher who isn't in the classroom due to a pandemic-caused hiring freeze. That instructor will be supervising the lessons along with other assistants, said Daniels, who has also installed air purifiers, and hand-sanitizer dispensers and bought a portable whiteboard for class work. Families can pay $75 a day or $250 for a full week. New York City schools currently plan to offer students a mix of in-person and remote instruction.

"My silver lining to only having 40 students during the summer"-about half normal enrollment-"is I was able to learn how to do this," Daniels said. "It went so smooth, everyone is healthy, everyone is good, they were so happy to be here."

She hopes the school year will be the same.

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