Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
What to do with the children when school is online but parents and guardians have to be at work during the school day?
That’s what Pittsburgh Public Schools, the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Allegheny County and community partner agencies such as Trying Together are trying to figure out before online classes start for Pittsburgh’s 23,000 students on Aug. 31.
The groups are working with an infusion of $4.35 million in CARES Act funding provided from Allegheny County’s $57.9 million share of the federal funding. The funding is for programs throughout the county, not just for Pittsburgh schools, and is aimed at providing child care for essential workers.
Pittsburgh Public Schools are expected to have the greatest child care needs given its large enrollment.
“We have a lot of parents who physically have to go to work…And we have families who need to provide for their households. So whether we like to have thought about (child care) for K-12 we have to now,” said Cara Ciminillo, executive director of Trying Together.
It’s not just a Pittsburgh problem. Finding child care during school hours is an issue facing schools across the county and nation as the COVID-19 virus has forced schools to develop full or part-time online programs at the same time more parents are being required to return to work and essential workers remain on their jobs.
How to create safe spaces for school-age children has been discussed by Pittsburgh school officials since the start of its “All In to Reopen Our Schools” effort, which started in late June, said Monte Robinson, Community Schools Coordinator for Pittsburgh schools.
At the time, the district was considering a hybrid education model in which students would be divided into two groups and each group would attend school for two days and learn online for three days each week. But the school board voted on July 31 to offer online only classes for the first nine weeks.
Robinson said he co-chaired a committee of about 30 people who discussed “connecting children to child care during remote learning days.”
That discussion produced the solution of creating community learning hubs operated by some of the same agencies that provide out of school time programs for Pittsburgh students. Some of the hubs will be operated in spaces owned by the agencies while others may be operated out of Pittsburgh school buildings with staff from the agencies.
Those agencies are part of the Allegheny Partners Out of School Time (APOST) network which is sponsored by the United Way.
Another solution is for parents to find available spaces at one of the 650 licensed child care providers in the county, Ciminillo said.
The Pittsburgh district is trying to determine the need for child care services via an online survey on its website. But with less than a week to go before classes start, only 1,004 families have responded and identified a need for 427 students, said Melanie Claxton, coordinator of Out of School Time programs.
That information is being shared with the APOST agencies, Claxton said. She suspects that other families have made contacts directly with some of the agencies, in particular those who sponsored day programs during the summer. Others may have connected with agencies for child care centers by going through the Allegheny Child Care finder via a link on the Trying Together website.
The link allows parents to search for available programs with open spaces for their children during school hours either at child care centers or at community learning hubs.
Having a supervised environment during school hours will be especially important because the Pittsburgh district plans for most of its lessons to be synchronous, with students working in real time under their teacher’s direction.
That’s different from the spring when remote learning consisted of lessons being posted for students to complete on their own time.
“Students will receive direct lessons from teachers. Adults will be there to help with any technical issues or login issues. There could be some classroom help around making sure the kids will have structure to their day,” Claxton said of the learning hubs..
The initial learning hubs will be created for students in grades K-5 and will follow the same state Department of Education guidelines on social distancing and wearing of masks, said Stephanie Lewis, APOST director. Lewis said if the need arises, learning hubs may be created later for students in grades 6-12.
Learning hubs will likely have 20 students but in larger spaces they could have as many students as 40–50. They will operate from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and students will be served breakfast and lunch and possibly an afternoon snack. The staff to student ratio will be 1:10 or 1:12, Lewis said.
All staff will have child abuse clearances and will be trained on social distancing regulations and other coronavirus-related procedures.
Claxton said meals will be provided daily for all students by the district daily during the online lessons and that learning hub staff can pick up meals at the district’s distribution sites.
At this point, the district will not provide transportation for students. But Lewis said some of the agencies may be able to do so.
Neither Claxton nor Lewis could say for sure which agencies will provide hubs or what city schools may be used. But their goal is to make sure the learning hubs are spread throughout the areas of the city where the need exists.
Currently, there are abundant agencies in the northern and eastern parts of the city ready to operate hubs but those working on the plans want to ensure there is capacity to meet needs throughout the city.
Claxton said currently there are enough agencies at the ready to meet the needs that have been expressed. But it’s possible more sites will need to be opened to meet geographic needs or increased needs.
Some of the hubs will be located in facilities owned by agencies, such as the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania. But some others may be operated by the agencies at district schools.
“We are planning to open a number of our spaces for a daytime specialty camp and also recently joined Allegheny County DHS (Department of Human Services) as one of the learning hub partners,” Lisa Abel-Palmieri, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.
Ciminillo, of Trying Together, said recent changes in state regulations on child care now make it possible for those who qualify for subsidized child care to use their subsidies for daytime slots for their school-aged children.
Previously subsidized care during school hours was available to families who make under 200 percent of the poverty level (about $54,000 for a family of four) for children from ages 0-5. Older children could receive only part-time subsidies for before and after school care.
But regulations were changed after the pandemic created a need for child care for older children who are attending school fully or partially online while their parents are required to be at work, in particular essential workers.
“So the state got approval to say we can flip from part-day to full day and the subsidy will cover it,” Ciminillo said.
As a result, child care centers can take students up to about age 12 during school hours, with some able to accept students as old as high school age, Ciminillo said.
However, there are families making above that amount who still can’t afford to pay for daytime child care for their school-aged children. Ciminillo said more than 100 families have expressed that need and the hope is some of the county CARES Act funds will be used to cover those costs or place those children in community learning hubs.
“We are in the midst of working through that list,” Ciminillo said.
In the meantime, child care centers that plan to take school-aged children are beefing up their technical services and staff.
“They have built into their budget anything they’d need from increasing the internet connection to taking on a couple of extra staff members and buying supplies,” Ciminillo said.
Child care centers are hiring some certified teachers and tutors to help students with their school lessons.
“Child care as a sector has remained open since March. They have figured it out and it’s not to say that it’s perfect. But they did the work of rethinking their space, creating small pods of children and training staff,” Ciminillo said.
Ciminillo said she believes with the consortium of groups that are working together, child care needs during the school day should be met.
“I think we are doing the best job we can to ensure that children have somewhere that is safe. Where they can be cared for, where their learning can be supported with adults who can look out for them, Ciminillo said. .
“We’re lucky we’ve got the funding. We’re lucky we’ve got the partners. The pandemic has helped us to break down the silos.”