When XL Sports manager Lynne Prairie posted a message that its summer camp programs in South Jersey would remain open for the new school year, she was flooded with inquiries from parents seeking new day-care options in the pandemic era.
“They’re panic-stricken about what they’re going to do with their children,” said Prairie, who manages a sprawling XL camp in Mount Laurel. “They’re scrambling.”
Across the region, as many schools prepare to reopen with remote instruction, some allowing students to return to the classroom and others choosing hybrid models, venues like the camp are popping up to meet a new need for parents: what to do with their children learning virtually at home?
The coronavirus has altered school schedules that may include half days or only two days a week in the classroom. That could change further if there is a new outbreak. It has worsened a shortage of child-care programs as more parents suddenly need a place to send their children.
Prairie said XL Sports, which also operates a summer camp in Cherry Hill, plans to enroll about 150 students in grades K through 7 at each location from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Students will be supervised by teachers and support staff while completing their online homework, Prairie said. The program costs $55 a day or $35 for a half day.
“We’re trying to offer a solution to working families to give them an alternative,” said Prairie. “There’s a huge need.”
Besides camps staying open longer, other places like gyms, skating rinks, and dance studios are converting their spaces into makeshift day-care centers where students can log on for virtual classes. Parents have the option to enroll their children for five days a week or only on days that their school buildings are closed.
They must be licensed and follow health and safety guidelines and practice social distancing. They are typically staffed with teachers or aides who can help with homework. Some offer financial assistance.
The Deptford Skating Center is putting tables on the floor of its massive rink to set up a virtual learning space for K-8 students for $54 a day, said owner Charles Kirschner. The Deptford school district plans to open with all-remote instruction.
For Chesterbrook Academy, which operates private preschools, camps, elementary, and after-school programs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it was a natural move to offer educational solutions for pandemic care, said LaSha Taylor, a vice president with the company.
Students enrolled in “Club Connect” will complete their schoolwork and also have an opportunity for virtual field trips, photography, and other activities.
”People reached out, saying, ‘My school is going hybrid, I need a place for my kids Tuesdays and Fridays,’” Taylor said. “We said it’s already uncertain out there for families. The last thing they need is for their child-care situation to not be predictable.”
Shana Heidorn, thinking as a parent, panicked on hearing the Philadelphia School District would begin the year with virtual classes. Her kids, particularly the youngest two, didn’t take well last spring to being at home, with Mom as their teacher.
Then she started thinking as the owner of the Society Hill Dance Academy, which has a 10,000-square-foot building on East Passyunk Avenue — plenty of room for children, computers, and support staff.
Heidorn created Passyunk Internet Pods: a service that will offer space for up to 30 children in three separate pods. Virtual navigators — not teachers, but adults with college degrees and appropriate clearances — will offer educational guidance, with breaks for dance classes and lunch.
“We thought why not create some pods,” said Heidorn. “Parents need to go to work and know their kids are in a safe place, a good learning environment.”
Pivoting to offering pandemic educational services has been a saving grace for other businesses like the Phield House, an indoor sports facility at Eighth and Spring Garden in Philadelphia nearly flattened by the coronavirus.
A program the Phield House is calling “School Days” will offer academic support and structured physical activity, said Frank Decembrino, one of its owners. Kids will bring their computers and supplies, and staff can help students get on Zoom calls, answer questions, and make sure students are on task.
“We’re not the teacher, but we’re filling that void,” Decembrino said. At the Phield House and the Ambler Sports Academy, its sister facility, “interest has been through the roof.”
Cherry Hill parent Gabrielle Zucker had a different dilemma. She was reluctant to send her 17-month-old daughter, Mikaela, back to day-care at the Katz Jewish Community Center because of health concerns. She also was struggling to work from home and keep her toddler busy with activities.
Zucker, a health-care consultant, hired a caretaker in June through the center to come to her home four times a week. The caretaker is a substitute teacher at the JCC and already knew her daughter.
“It has honestly worked out amazing,” Zucker said. “It has made our lives a lot easier. "
In addition to its “JHEARTS” program, which pairs families with caretakers to work in their home for up to 30 hours, the JCC also plans to launch a program at the center during the day to accommodate about 100 kids for virtual learning, said Brian Adler, director of fund-raising and development.
Adler said students will be placed in classrooms with no more than 10 students. The program runs six hours and costs $65 a day, he said.
“We’re helping parents stay employed and we’re helping kids with their school stuff,” said Adler. “We’re very excited about it.”
In Camden, where the traditional public schools are opening with online learning only, the Boys and Girls Club plans to set up pods for about 70 students, said Bernadette Shanahan, executive director.
Shanahan said she is trying to figure out how to fund the program, which was not in this year’s budget.
“We need to be there for these kids,” she said. “There’s so much more need than there are resources.”