By Debbie Adams
Roanoke County Public Schools has created a task force with the YMCA, The United Way of Roanoke Valley, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia, the Prevention Council of Roanoke County and local churches to establish new day programs for students and their families impacted by alternative school schedules created as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The partners will work to provide affordable and high quality day program options for students ages 12 and under.
Under the reopening plan presented by School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely and his staff and adopted by the School Board on July 16, students in grades PreK-2 will return to school for full-time in-person learning on August 24. However, due to CDC and local health department guidelines on social distancing, students in grades 3-12 will choose from a blended instruction plan involving two days of in-school instruction with three days of remote learning, RCPS Online, or the RCPS Online Academy (for grades 9-12).
Families of students in the earliest grades will not face a childcare challenge as their children will be in school.
Parents of students in grades 7-12 who must return to work and do not have childcare alternatives may or may not feel comfortable leaving their children home alone on remote learning days.
But what about students in grades 3-6 who only attend school on two days each week on either Monday/Thursday or Tuesday/Friday schedules with all students in grades 3-12 at home on Wednesdays? The school system felt compelled to attempt to assist parents in finding childcare solutions for them.
“With the current schedule we are having to adopt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recognize that parents are facing some significant challenges when it comes to childcare,” said Dr. Nicely. “This is a challenge facing our entire community and we’ve brought together many community partners to help find and develop opportunities for families who need strong academic support programs for students, especially those in third to sixth grade, who otherwise might be home alone on days not in school.”
Nicely described the school system’s role as being the “hub” in the facilitative process. They will also establish criteria that programs must meet to become partners in the process.
Formation of the task force got underway with at a School Board work session on July 22. The board hosted representatives from local non-profits, churches, childcare providers, the Prevention Council of Roanoke County, and Roanoke County Parks and Recreation to attempt to organize a group to facilitate a solution to the childcare dilemma.
In less than a week, the task force was up and running, with many specifics worked out or in the works. The United Way Smart2Start program emerged as the tool for connecting families with appropriate day programs for times when students are not on the school campus.
Smart2Start gives families access to early care and education resources—affordable and high-quality. It began as a program for preschool children and those in the early grades but has expanded to include children up to age 12. The application can inform families of their eligibility for publicly funded programs that may provide free or reduced cost options as well.
As new day programs are established, they will be added to the current United Way Smart2Start program, which provides a single-source, streamlined online option—“one stop shopping”– for parents to apply for day programs at www.smart2start.org.
Parents need only visit the site, register their information, and facilitators will help them locate the best program for meeting their family’s needs. The United Way helps parents navigate the different options and helps match them up with the appropriate program. It is the first program of its kind in Virginia.
“We are excited to partner with Roanoke County Public Schools, our area out-of-school time providers and others in the community to create a feasible solution for students and families in Roanoke County as schools start,” said Abby Hamilton, president and CEO of the United Way of Roanoke Valley. “We are committed to work together to ensure that programs adhere to the same level of safety, security and health guidelines from the CDC and Virginia Department of Health. In addition, we are meeting the academic and social/emotional needs of students in an equitable way.”
“We plan to launch several new program sites to meet the needs of our community, and we need qualified staff immediately,” said Michelle Davis, CEO with Boys & Girls Club of SWVA.
Davis emphasized that the programs offered by the Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA will support students academically, in addition to making sure they are fed and well taken care of. “We will make sure working parents can work and that students are in a safe, supportive environment.”
Davis says the Boys & Girls Clubs programs include daily temperature checks, wellness questionnaires, and maximum attention to best practices in hygiene and social distancing.
The Boys & Girls Clubs programs generally employ a “pod” approach. Children are grouped in pods of eight students with two staff members and will remain together throughout the day (which lessens the chance of spread of COVID-19). They work through a schedule that includes meals and snacks, academics, recess, and other activities.
It may turn out that the Boys & Girls Club programs will be the most used in the Vinton area as they are headquartered nearest to Vinton in the southeast area of Roanoke City. Davis has been in discussion with Vinton Baptist Church and Bonsack Methodist to possibly provide space for the programs.
Jonathan Pait from the YMCA said their programs went into effect for essential workers when everything closed down in March and had now expanded to provide services for working families as well. They are able to spread students out across multiple locations instead of congregating at a central school, which provides space for appropriate social distancing.
He expressed his concern for fully staffing programs and invited those with childcare experience throughout the valley to step forward. “We could use you to impact the community.”
Both Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCA are currently hiring for school year programming across the region. Both part-time and full-time positions are available and will need to be filled for new sites to open.
“The faith-based community is ready to step up and meet the needs of many parents,” said Tom McCracken, pastor of CommUNITY Church in Salem. “We’ve heard from several churches that are ready to host programs. What we need right now is help from our community to make this happen. We need people to work in these programs; we need donations to help keep these costs low and offer scholarships for students.”
Nancy Hans from the Prevention Council pledged that her organization will work collaboratively with other groups to “put all the community’s arms around the families and kids” affected.
“We are taking the further step of working to devote some of the funding provided by the CARES Act to help offset some of the costs for parents, especially low-income families,” Nicely said.
The task force is a work in rapid progress identifying resources and addressing many challenges such as staffing and licensing of programs, space, capacity, scheduling, transportation, meeting health guidelines and social distancing requirements, hygiene, face coverings, security, background checks for staff, working with students with disabilities, and costs. One particular challenge for day care programs will be providing care for students on Wednesdays when all blended instruction students are at home while teachers plan.