Child care centers faced with myriad challenges as school districts start remote learning

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NORTH ADAMS — The remote reopening of several school districts this week is presenting a slew of new challenges for child care centers, which have already made significant changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"The majority of our parents are not able to work from home, so they need to have their children at the center there during the day," said Kelly Marion, CEO of the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center in Pittsfield.

The remote start and the COVID-19 crisis have reduced centers' capacity and created other issues, particularly around internet access and transportation. There's also concern for the families who are no longer sending their children to centers, whether due to a safety choice or a lack of resources.

"My understanding is there are a whole lot of kids who aren't going to child care because the transportation is not there," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.

Pittsfield Public Schools, which is opening remotely Tuesday, has long worked with child care centers to transport students to and from their homes to the centers, as well as between the centers and schools. This year, Marion said, that program isn't happening, forcing parents and child care centers to find other means of transportation.

KidZone in Pittsfield has its own vans, but the number of kids that can safely travel per trip has been greatly reduced, driving up costs for centers that have already seen a drop in enrollments.

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With a new mandate that each student be allotted at least 42 square feet of space, KidZone added two classrooms, one of which was previously a gymnasium. Still, the center has cut 104 children from its previous capacity of 177.

The Brigham Center has gone from having 144 children to 123, Marion said. And 18 Degrees Family Services in Pittsfield has gone from being able to accommodate 52 children to just 20, said Erin Sullivan, 18 Degrees' vice president of community and donor relations.

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"When you have parents not coming anymore either because they're afraid or their vouchers expired, for child care centers that means we're losing income," Robert said. "When the dust settles, we're going to look at our income and see if we can stay open."

KidZone has also paid to upgrade its WiFi for remote learning, after Robert learned at a Pittsfield Public Schools webinar that the district-provided hot spots could have difficulty if too many students used them in close proximity.

"To have all of the children here having to get on Chromebooks all at the same time, we're not sure how that is going to work," Marion said, although she said she hoped hot spots could eventually alleviate the burden.

In addition, different districts use different schedules for breaks and lunches, leading to possible distractions in child care classrooms that have students from multiple districts.

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"Some will be doing school, some will be doing other things and we have classrooms that won't be eating lunch at the same time," said Robert, who said she's seeking greater coordination between child care centers and school officials.

Moreover, while parents and school teachers have received some training to help students with remote learning software, child care teachers have not received instruction, Robert said.

Farley-Bouvier believes some of the challenges child care centers have experienced can be traced back to the state's reopening advisory board. Members of that board, which included elected officials and leaders of several industries, did not prioritize child care, Farley-Bouvier said.

"They just acknowledged child care and transportation were big issues, but they couldn't come up with any solution to it," she said. "To me, child care should've been at the center of reopening the economy."

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.


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