By: Georgia Recorder
About 20 students between five and 13 gathered this week in a colorful classroom in Star Light Learning Academy in Kennesaw to start a school year unlike any other.
They sat in front of laptops and tablets at socially-distanced tables and logged on to meet their teachers and classmates for the first time on their screens.
With Cobb County and several of Georgia’s other large school districts now conducting classes entirely online, some working parents are sending children old enough to attend middle school to study virtually at day care centers like Star Light where adults can make sure they are staying safe and on-task during the school day. Child care centers can be a less expensive and less drastic alternative to private schools. Opening their doors for older students can also be a boon for the centers, many of which are seeing fewer children enrolled as parents work from home.
But not every family can afford to send their children to a child care facility, and facilitating online learning is a new challenge for most workers accustomed to the personal touch.
“Childcare providers know infection control, they very aware of hand washing protocols and disinfecting protocols and those kinds of situations, so I think they could be well-positioned to help families at this time,” said Mindy Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education. “But it’s not a substitute for school-aged kids, because child care, for the most part, isn’t in the business of educating kids over five years old. At the same time, this is an emergency.”
Star Light’s assistant director DeQuanna Lott is used to reading storybooks, tying shoelaces and calming tantrums, but monitoring the virtual classrooms of 20 kids has presented an entirely different challenge.
“Not only are the teachers trying to teach, but the kindergartners have no idea how to type, how to use the computer,” Lott said. “So we need manpower, we literally have the owner, the director and three teachers helping the children, hopefully this first week until they’re comfortable, but we literally have to go in and show them how to do it.”
Over the summer, Lott put together folders with each student’s names, teacher names and login information to help make the transition easier, but technical glitches still prevented some students from getting online quickly. Once they were connected, they had a hard time knowing what to do without the oversight that a traditional teacher provides.
The district took care of the technical problems, but keeping all those children on task is still no easy feat.
“We need help”
“After our first day, I know that we need help,” said Star Light’s owner, Shenette Zachary. “I thought it was going to be where they just walk in, and each child just logging onto the computer and it pulls up, but no, you have to literally help each child log in, and then they’re asking us, like, ‘Help me read this, help me understand this. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ So we need more manpower, more staff. That’s the biggest thing right now.”
Zachary said she’s hired two new teachers during the first week and would like to bring on at least one more, but the money to do that just is not there, especially when she is offering reduced rates to families who can’t afford the regular price.
“Parents are coming in and saying ‘All I can pay is $100 because I’m not used to paying anything because my children were in school.’ And they’re absolutely right. If their children were in school, and now the children are not in school, the schools are closed, how do the parents afford the child care?”
The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning is set to receive between $17 and $19 million to support onsite learning for students between five and 12 whose school systems have opted for virtual learning, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office announced Wednesday. Those funds are part of a $105 million allocation included in the federal CARES Act for emergency education relief.
That money could be a big help for low-income parents, Binderman said, as long as it does not come at the expense of classrooms that would ordinarily serve infants and toddlers.
Without investment in early-learning programs for young kids, child care providers could still find themselves in financial trouble, she said.
“In many cases, child care in the state hasn’t been serving the full capacity of kids, both because they’re trying to space kids out, but also because families that have young kids may not be sending their kids back yet, so I think that there’s space and room to serve the school-age kids,” Binderman said.
“The economics of childcare are really, to run a center you have to have a full classroom, because you have to pay your teachers, you pay your overhead, and when they’re running at like 50% capacity, that’s really hard to do, and many of them didn’t get payroll protection. They’re on really thin margins,” she said.
Parents in digital-only districts are looking at other virtual learning locations as well, said Robin Plesher, owner of child care center Discovery Point in Johns Creek, which is also offering space for digital learners.
“We’re at about 50% of the capacity where we started, interest-wise, largely because a lot of parents have gone the private school route. If there’s a competition for this program, it’s probably coming from the private schools,” she said. “The other thing that happens is a lot of parents have pooled resources to hire a teacher who’s not working, for example, to teach in-house, so four or five parents will pool their resources and pay one teacher to come into somebody’s home and monitor learning.”
Churches, businesses like summer camps and karate schools as well as nonprofits are also offering watchful eyes for young students studying online and entertainment for the hours between school dismissal and when mom and dad leave work, but those programs often come with a price tag as well.
Nonprofit Girls Inc. of Greater Atlanta is offering a study space for about 20 girls each weekday in its Marietta headquarters. When school is over, the girls have access to the nonprofit’s educational after school program.
Running the program is much pricier than operating their regular after-school and summer camp programs, said CEO Tiffany Collie-Bailey, and some of that money has to come from parents.
“We have to double our staffing to support the program, the cost of the PPE, the one-on-one attention and the supplemental pieces, and now instead of having girls from 2:30 to 6:30, we have girls from 7:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening,” she said. “All of that has led to an increase in cost, but what we are charging parents does not cover the full cost of the program.”
Girls Inc. will use grant money to help cover some of the cost for parents, Collie-Bailey said, and they also offer reduced rates for low-income families.
The virtual learning program does more than give working parents a place to park their kids while they go to work, Collie-Bailey said. It also gives children a little bit of normalcy during a time that has been lonely and scary.
“The girls are happy to be able to see each other, to be able to connect with each other after so long, and they get to see some of their favorite facilitators that have been working with them after they haven’t seen them for a while,” she said. “This is what I know about our kids, and I see it every day. They’re resilient. They are absolutely resilient. I’m not saying life doesn’t affect them, but with love and support, they’re able to bounce back quicker than we as adults can.”
But online learning is not fun for many students, Plesher said.
“It’s very difficult depending on the school, you have some children who are literally sitting in front of a laptop for four hours at a time with no break. That’s a lot,” she said. “But we’re compelled to follow it because that’s what the schools are requiring. I would say if you would ask those students, they would definitely prefer to go back to school. The parents that I’m aware of definitely prefer that they go back to school. But we’re just making the best of what we have to work with until we can get back.”