Shuttered schools new gambit: charging desperate parents to provide pandemic daycare

Services are meant to help parents who can't stay home with kids any longer.

Published: August 19, 2020 2:39pm

Updated: August 19, 2020 11:48pm

Multiple shuttered public school districts across the country have launched fee-based daycare systems to which local parents can send their children, services that are intended to assist workers who are unable to supervise their children during home-based virtual learning schooldays. 

School districts across the country in recent weeks have announced plans to keep physical school campuses closed through the start of the semester and possibly through the end of it, citing concerns that school buildings could become hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks. 

At the same time, many school systems in recent weeks have announced plans to open daycare programs in the very schools they have shut down, stating that the programs are meant for parents who need to return to work and who consequently require childcare as the semester begins. Many of these programs will, as with standard daycare, charge weekly fees for each child enrolled in them. 

Among the school districts launching such plans is the public school department of Durham, N.C., which plans to open "learning centers" in several area schools in order to "provide support for students who need supervision" during the school day. Parents will be charged on a sliding scale of between $70 to $140 per week, along with a $35 signup charge. "Students who are homeless or in foster care will not be charged," the district says on its website. 

Fairfax County will charge up to $368 per week for supervision

The public school system of Fairfax County, Va., is launching a similar initiative dubbed the "Supporting Return to School" program. The initiative, which is billed as a joint program between the county and the public school department, seeks to ensure "that all families have equitable access to the services they need to support children’s virtual learning."

"The SRS program will provide full-day on-site programming for children in Kindergarten through sixth grade residing in Fairfax County and City of Fairfax, Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m," the school system's website states. 

Though children will still have to adhere to the school district's virtual learning curricula, the school system says the daycare program will offer "a supportive setting to promote children’s academic, social, emotional and physical development," including "opportunities for children to explore, engage, relax and enjoy activities" and "a warm and welcoming environment and a day balanced with care, learning, guidance, friendships and fun!"

Amanda Rogers, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County Neighborhood & Community Services, said the fees for the program are assessed on a sliding scale. For adjusted household incomes at $131,000 and above, parents will pay $1,472 a month, or $368 per week. With incomes at $52,399 and below, parents will pay just $20 per week. 

The average income in Fairfax County is just under $160,000. 

Children will be allowed to play with each other 'at a safe distance'

One of the principle concerns of many parents with school-aged children is the effects that social isolation may have on schoolkids used to being among large groups of friends on a regular basis. The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto said last month that one of the effects school closures can have on children is "adverse impact on their social development and mental health" and that "playing and socializing ... is central to child development."

The "Extended Day Program" of South Pasadena Unified School District touts its recreational offerings to prospective students, stating that they will be allowed "to play outside" with each other, albeit "at a safe distance." The school district, located just outside of Los Angeles, says that participating students "will be placed in small groups (no more than 10 per class) taking into account siblings, grade levels, and cohorts." 

Parents will be charged $210 per child per week for the program. "The cost is higher than we had originally hoped," the school district states. "We understand that the cost for childcare is difficult for many families.  SPUSD's program costs families less than any other school district non-subsidized daycare program."  

"Our operating expenses and revenues are tight," the site adds. "The ability to offer daycare is strictly dependent upon the program's solvency month to month." 

The program is intended to "provide care for those working parents that need a safe place for their students to be while they return to their jobs."

District Superintendent Geoff Yantz told Just the News that the program is normally offered every year to families "who need help with childcare services."

"The SPUSD program is self-funded and is not subsidized by any state or federal dollars," he continued. "Rates for services are set that allow the program to cover its costs while offering a service to the community and that are competitive with other programs within Southern California. Reduced rates for the Extended Day Program are available to families based on need."

"Several families have opted to participate in this year's program for their child," he added, though when asked he would not say how many. Asked what the weekly rate was for lower-income families, he replied: "Dependent upon need."

The "School Day Camp" of the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District in Wisconsin, meanwhile, promotes similar benefits, promising "recess, and outdoor activities, and play with school peers" alongside "time for online learning, [and] homework help." Families will be charged $100 per week to attend, with lower-income families only having to pay $50 per week. 

Program offered for healthcare workers, first responders only

In Marana Unified School District in Pima County, Arizona, parents who are first responders and "essential healthcare workers" can sign up for the district's "Learning, Enrichment and Play" program. 

The twelve-hour daycare program normally offers "secure, supervised learning and play experiences that enhance the time a child spends away from home and school," including "academic support, art, physical education, and hands-on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities geared to academically challenge and engage students in a creative and fun way."

The modified version meant for the children of healthcare workers "will operate at no more than a 1:9 ratio, with one adult assigned to a group of nine children." A maximum of nine children will be permitted in each room. Adults will "encourage social distancing through strategies to minimize student touch/interactions," and will engage in regular sanitization practices. 

Families are charged $4.55 per hour per child, with a maximum weekly fee of $238. Additional children are charged at $3.87 per hour.

School district spokeswoman Tamara Crawley said the school system has been offering childcare for "essential workers" since the spring. "To date, we have received no complaints regarding this program and/or cost," Crowley said. "Our enrollment is currently 181."

Crowley also noted that the school district is offering a separate program that provides "free on-site learning opportunities and support services for students who need a place to go during the day," per the district's website. That program, which is free, expects students to be "self-directed;" students "must stay in their assigned area and must remain actively engaged in their remote lessons" while engaging that service. 

"It is similar to a supervised study hall," the district's website says. 

Reopen schools, experts urge

Numerous medical and public health experts both in the U.S. and internationally have stated that countries should make it a priority to reopen schools and return children to them as soon as possible. 

Children in many European countries have been back at school for months, with health authorities reporting that children appear to be less likely than adults to contract COVID-19, less likely to become gravely ill from it, and less likely to spread it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that school-aged children made up just 0.012% of the total COVID-19 fatalities at the time.

Yet education officials and professionals across the U.S. have in recent weeks been demanding the closure of school districts here through at least the first several weeks of the fall semester, claiming the risk of COVID outbreaks is too high. 

Some unions have tied the re-opening of schools to seemingly unrelated demands such as a "moratorium" on charter schools and a suspension on mortgage payments.

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