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Communities Are Trying To Help Working Parents Who Face A Child Care Gap

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

For decades, back to school has meant the return of a routine. Throw a sandwich into a Wonder Woman lunchbox, stash some No. 2 pencils and a Trapper Keeper into a backpack, and toss your kids onto a yellow school bus. This year - not so fast. With so many schools either staying remote or opening up part-time, millions of working parents are facing a serious child care gap. So this fall, some communities are trying to help. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been following the story, and she joins us now.

Hi, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: We've been hearing about the controversy over affluent parents organizing private learning pods. You have found that there's actually an alternative emerging for families who don't have the means to hire private nannies or tutors. Tell us about that alternative.

KAMENETZ: Yes. So I've been tracking these all over the country - New York City, San Francisco to Memphis, Tenn. And they're sometimes called learning hubs or learning labs, and these are being organized by cities themselves or by school districts to offer groups of students a safe place to go during the day and help with remote learning and free Wi-Fi, which a lot of families don't have. And what's really important is they're either free, these hubs, or very low-cost and subsidized for the families that need it.

PFEIFFER: So what exactly do these learning labs or learning hubs look like? It's combo school plus aftercare.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, basically. So these are, you know, obviously really small groups of kids. That's important for coronavirus safety. The locations are ranging from, you know, a school building, a YMCA, a library. Some organizations are looking into leasing spaces, like maybe even an empty university campus or a gym. And then in some cases, school employees are actually working at these hubs. For example, our member station reporter Aubri Juhasz at WWNO - she visited two of these learning hubs in New Orleans, and she says while child care is a really big draw, families are also coming for the Wi-Fi. Let's take a listen.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: At Dwight D. Eisenhower Charter School, school leaders greet mask-clad students as they make their way into the building.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning. Good morning. Good morning.

JUHASZ: The school normally serves more than 600 students, but today it's expecting fewer than two dozen. That's because in New Orleans, public schools are technically still closed, and learning is entirely virtual. The students that are here are attending the school's learning hub. In the cafeteria, kids are separated into socially distanced groups of nine, each quietly working away on their own device.

They are logged in. There are signs up everywhere for the Wi-Fi for students to get on to. And then there are a lot of adults floating around to help. And all the kids are wearing masks. Faculty are wearing masks and face shields as well.

The hub is run by educators at Eisenhower. Principal Rulonda Green says a lot of students are here for one thing.

RULONDA GREEN: It literally is to get Internet access. And if you needed technology, we have it here available for you.

JUHASZ: The city estimates the more than 9,000 New Orleans students may not have Internet access for remote learning. That's far more kids than the local learning hubs are currently serving. Eisenhower is part of the InspireNOLA Charter Schools network, which is funding and operating free hubs for almost 600 students. New Orleans public schools has committed to providing every student with a tablet or a laptop, but the devices aren't very helpful without an Internet connection.

TIMOLYNN SAMS: You can have a computer and can't utilize Google Classroom, right?

JUHASZ: That's Timolynn Sams, InspireNOLA's director of community engagement. She says the hubs are an essential tool for ensuring equal access to virtual learning. She also points out that in New Orleans, a majority Black school district, white children are more likely to attend a private school.

GREEN: Our private and parochial schools are back in session. None of our public schools are.

JUHASZ: So while white children are more likely to be back in the classroom, Black and brown students are mostly learning from home, in many cases without reliable Internet. InspireNOLA's hubs offer both Internet and supervision but only one or two days a week. And even with staggered attendance, the network says it's at capacity with a waitlist more than 200 students long. The city of New Orleans is also operating learning hubs out of libraries and rec centers like this one in New Orleans East, which is open five days a week. Seventh grader Esmerelda Smith (ph) says she's happy to get out of her house.

ESMERELDA SMITH: I just think I needed the time away from all the noise and distractions at home to come here and learn quietly and peacefully.

JUHASZ: Emily Wolff with the Mayor's Office of Youth and Families says the city has tried to make the hubs accessible, especially for low-income families and those with no Internet. But there are still considerable barriers. Families are responsible for transportation, and the hubs get funding from the federal government, which involves a lot of paperwork.

EMILY WOLFF: You know, we wish we could just have them fill out a simple registration for them and get signed up right away, but that's made it a little bit slower. And unfortunately, you know, for some families, they see all of that, and it's just a barrier.

JUHASZ: Wolff says families submitted interest forms for more than 1,000 students in mid-August, but so far, only 100 children are registered. The city has room for 500 students and is already looking to expand. While the district's youngest students have the option to return to the classroom in mid-September, older students will continue with virtual learning until at least mid-October.

For NPR News, I'm Aubri Juhasz in New Orleans.

PFEIFFER: And now we're back with Anya Kamenetz, NPR's education correspondent. Anya, as we listen to this, I'm sure many listeners were wondering about coronavirus safety and wondering, if it's not safe to open schools, how can it be safe enough to run these learning hubs?

KAMENETZ: Yes, Sacha. That's a really great question. I mean, the biggest safety measure, as we heard, is keeping these groups of children very, very small - like, nine kids at a time. The truth is, you know, it's really striking. Compared to all the angst that we're hearing about school reopening, the folks that I talked to, like, especially at the YMCA, actually expressed a fair amount of confidence in these hubs because they've been running child care for months with only a few scattered cases and no outbreaks so far.

PFEIFFER: Certainly positive news.

KAMENETZ: Yes. On the other hand, there is a potential additional issue with hubs that are not full-time, like the one at Eisenhower in New Orleans. And that is if the hub is only available a couple of days or hours in the week, where are the kids the rest of time? You know, if they go somewhere else with a whole other group of kids, that's multiplying contacts, and it's doing it potentially across multiple places. And I talked to William Hanage about this. He is at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

WILLIAM HANAGE: Not adding new contacts should be the name of the game.

KAMENETZ: Hanage has written about the dangers of hybrid school schedules because, you know, if you have kids in class on Mondays and Wednesdays, they might potentially be with a whole different group of children on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

PFEIFFER: So, Anya, if you have students who, in some cases, are in a school building during the school day with school personnel watching them, following the school curriculum, why can't they just reopen the schools?

KAMENETZ: Yeah, a lot of people are asking that. And, you know, the answer, I think, is it takes money. To open schools to all students full-time while following CDC recommendations, you need lots and lots of space. You need probably more teachers, more people to watch the kids, to spread out, to keep them in small groups. And without, like, a big federal relief package or something, cities are really in triage mode right now. So this is Maria Su from San Francisco's Department of Children, Youth and Families.

MARIA SU: It was a balancing act of trying to figure out how many children we would be able to appropriately serve.

KAMENETZ: So San Francisco literally sat down all their city agencies. They did a headcount of their most vulnerable kids - the ones in the shelter system, the ones in foster care. And they have promised to create 6,000 community hub spaces for all of these kids at places like libraries and recreation centers. So far, Maria Su told me, they'd been able to create about a third of those.

PFEIFFER: This fall feels so much like a combination health and education experiment. Even though it's really early into the back-to-school year, do we know anything yet about how this experiment is affecting kids?

KAMENETZ: Well, I can tell you that parents are extremely stressed out. Teachers are stressed. We know that kids already academically have been falling behind. We are - many people that I talked to, child advocates, are extremely worried about the most vulnerable children that aren't getting access to the meals they normally would have at school. So, really, the long-term picture is it's going to be a lot of remediation and a long road to get back to where we were before the pandemic.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thank you for following this and for telling us about this.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "THERE THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.