One of the biggest changes that students are facing as schools reopen this fall are new "hybrid" schedules, in which they may go to class just two or three days per week. That is also challenging for many parents who are now scrambling to find child care in a state where access and cost were major barriers, even before the pandemic.
As part of Maine Public’s Deep Dive: Coronavirus series, Robbie Feinberg has the story.
On a recent weekday morning, a few dozen students trudge through the weeds outside of the Lewiston campus of the Margaret Murphy Centers for Children and descend into a nearby forest.
The center is a special-purpose private school that serves students with disabilities. But this fall, it also had to solve a staffing problem as some of the teachers wrestled with a range of reopening scenarios at their own children's schools.
“I definitely started panicking when there was talk about schools doing the hybrid model, two days, three days in person and three days off,” says Jayna Verrill, a special education teacher at the center who has two kids in second and fifth grade.
“I really didn't have much of a backup option,” Verrill says. “Looking into family potentially or friends reaching out to other people that are within our community. And with COVID, it's scary. Do I want the kids all over the place and going here and there and everywhere?”
Director Michelle Hathaway says that after hearing these same concerns from many teachers, the school decided to take a big step. It transformed conference rooms and other spaces into a childcare center for about 40 children of its employees.
“I think that one of the huge challenges for working families has been the unknown with COVID,” says Hathaway. “And so for example, even today, we have students that are expected to start public school in a week, who still don't know what days they're scheduled to go to. And so we've said to our families, ‘we'll make it work.’”
The program is just one of many ways that schools, providers, and other organizations are scrambling to meet the demand for child care fueled by school reopenings.
“It's a huge puzzle,” says Tara Williams, the executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children. “So if no one is sitting at the table looking at how all the puzzle pieces fit together, it's not going to make sense. And it's not going to click and work.”
Williams says reopening has led to a tangled web of new challenges: parents now looking for care on select days per week and teachers themselves searching for childcare.
“I think about, in the area of the state where I live, and there's hybrid plans that are kids in school Thursday, Fridays, other ones Tuesday, Fridays, there's just every morning, five days a week,” says Williams. “I think it's really difficult to try to plan for things that you haven't planned for in the past. And I'm thinking about all the work that school district leaders are doing right now. But if we don't find a way to plan together, then our schools are not going to be able to open and run well.”
The challenges also come at a time when Maine's already-strapped childcare system has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The state Department of Health and Human Services says that about 86% of licensed providers are currently operating. But, despite millions of dollars in grants aimed at bolstering the system, 63 licensed providers have closed permanently since the pandemic began, with more than half saying their decision was at least in part caused by the challenges of the pandemic.
The Mills administration has also allocated $25 million for schools to spend on developing day programming to supplement in-person learning. Many are partnering with groups such as YMCAs. Bangor region YMCA CEO Diane Dickerson says her organization is working with 10 school districts to provide care for at least 200 students this fall, and it has already had to double its staff and open up new programs in churches and other spaces in order to meet the need.
“We have got to be that source to provide a sense of normalcy, comfort, safety nurturing and as much support as we can possibly give both to the parents and to the child,” Dickerson says.
Other districts, including the Westbrook School Department, are opening their own childcare programs, too.
But Chrissie Davis, a Skowhegan childcare provider and chair of the Family Child Care Association of Maine, says she has been frustrated that she has not seen many schools working with smaller family providers, which often play a larger role in rural communities. Davis says she has already received a lot of demand from parents in search of care.
“I've got a waiting list of 30 people that want those slots, so I'm just trying to fit in the best fits,” Davis says. “It's insane. The number of people looking for care, and I'm flat out turning down, not even considering school-aged kids because I just can't.”
Other options have begun popping up to meet the needs created by school reopening, like a karate dojo being transformed into a remote learning center this fall. But with few options, many parents will likely look to family or friends to help fill in the gaps in Maine's childcare network.