Parents and Hburg’s schools scramble to find childcare in preparation for fall’s online learning

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor, and Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor

Raven Miller is an employee at one of the local Sheetz convenience stores. Her husband works full-time, too. In less than a month, their three children – ranging from elementary to high school age – will be attending virtual classes from home to start the academic year at Harrisonburg City Public Schools, like most students in the district. 

Miller plans to hire babysitters to stay home with the children during the work day, which is an added expense. On top of that, she said the children’s first experience with online learning when the pandemic began this spring wasn’t “half as effective” as in-person classes, especially for one of her children who has dyslexia. 

From a health standpoint, Miller said she feels some relieved because she feels her children will be safer at home.

“Then again, I’m an essential worker, so I come into contact with 100 to 200 people everyday. I could be bringing it home to them everyday,” Miller said. 

But as she hears from friends in Rockingham County who are planning to send their kids to school in-person two days a week, she’s happy hers aren’t among them.

“If I was a stay-at-home mom, I’d be 110% on board with 100% online learning,” Miller said.

The question of where children will now spend their school days is a hard one for many Harrisonburg families. Last month, the Harrisonburg School Board decided to start this semester with almost all students learning at a distance. Only a small number of students who require extra support services, including English language learners and those with special needs, will be given the option to attend school in person. 

This has set into motion a massive revamping of not only how teachers will deliver lessons online but of the entire school-day scheduling process. District leaders, such as the superintendent, have been negotiating with child care providers and non-profit organizations to find places — and funding options — for children of working parents to go and learn during the day while staying safe. Meanwhile, parents and guardians are scrambling to figure out plans A, B and even C to ensure their children have structure and supervision during the school days. 

Some parents and guardians already stay home. For others, their employers are flexible enough to allow them to work from home or change their schedules to look after their children and still earn a living. 

But others who have to work outside the home face an added challenge, enlisting family and friends may to help with childcare or potentially paying for the service – depending on their finances.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2019, at least 58% of jobs in the city of Harrisonburg are in sectors that primarily depend on in-person labor, such as truck driving, food service, construction, health care support and poultry processing.

That means many local parents can’t stay home to look after their kids and keep their jobs. 

The childcare center Second Home, which operates out of the Muhlenberg Lutheran Church, is keenly aware of this reality. 

“Childcare has always been a big problem for working families, regardless of their income level, but low income families have suffered the most,” executive director Krisztina Szekely told The Citizen in an email. “Affordable before-school care has only been available at Second Home, and we were not able to serve all the families that were looking for early morning care.”

Szekely and her team formerly offered childcare from 6 a.m. until the start of the school day and after school from 3:30 to 6 p.m. The facility shut down briefly this spring because of the pandemic. Then, on April 15, Second Home reopened as a full-day care center to just 12 students “whose parents worked in the essential infrastructure,” Szekely said. 

The center expanded to 20 students for June and July – still far below its normal capacity of 100. 

This fall, the center plans to serve 60 students, divided into three cohorts that will stay in separate areas of the church during the day. And Second Home is currently hiring staff to support the children’s distance learning – five teachers, five assistants, two Spanish-speaking receptionists and one person to help with food preparation.

“We will help the students complete their virtual classes and assignments at Second Home. Our programming will also include physical, social emotional learning activities, and academic enrichment,” Szekely said.

She said she’s also on the hunt for a satellite location in the hopes of increasing the number of students they can serve.

Some community members have contacted the school board with concerns that, with all-virtual learning, daycare centers will just replace schools as “petri dishes” of infection. The CDC has identified schools as high risk settings for “superspreading events.” 

Szekely said while the situation does “put a lot of pressure on child care centers,” the center didn’t have a single case of COVID-19 among their spring and summer students.

“I know we will do our best with the higher number of students also, to keep them and our staff safe,” she said.

And division superintendent Michael Richards noted that while some city students will be in childcare centers, those centers are staffed with fewer adults than schools, decreasing the number of potential contacts and, thus, the chances for virus carriers. And other students will be able to stay in their own homes or the homes of relatives and friends, thereby dispersing the student population across the city.

Richards said the division will send out a survey next week that includes questions about childcare needs so that he and community partners, including daycare centers, can determine the demand for those services “and what adjustments need to be made.” The school district also has been answering questions from the community about the fall plan

As for the cost of all-day child care, both the school district and Harrisonburg’s network of non-profit organizations are working on options to help families cover the costs. 

“The majority of our families belong to the ALICE population as defined by the United Way,” Szekely said. ALICE stands for Asset-limited, income-constrained, employed: basically, those who are working, but still living paycheck to paycheck. “We cannot put the burden of extra costs on families, whose financial status is stretched thin by the pandemic.”

The United Way and the Community Foundation helped support Second Home through the first part of the pandemic.

“Without this funding we would not have been able to operate,” Szekely said. But they’ll need to find other sources to expand their operations this fall. She’s been meeting with Richards and the directors from the Boys & Girls Club, Horizons Learning Foundation, and the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County to discuss other funding opportunities, such as federal funds and nonprofit grants, that could allay the added expense on working parents. 

Richards told The Citizen in an email that the school district might end up adjusting “budget lines to further assist with this.” 

Sandra Quigg, executive director at the local Boys & Girls Club, told The Citizen the organization will finalize plans for the coming academic year by Thursday. 

For the Harrisonburg public schools, the goal is to start the academic year with distance learning and transition to in-person classes for the spring semester, if not sooner. But Richards said pulling that off “highlights two significant challenges: improving distance learning and enhancing child care options,” Richards said. “The first we at HCPS are fully in control of, the second is a challenge the entire community must face together.”

With additional reporting by Eric Gorton.

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