Some area students are going back to school buildings this fall — not for class, but for child care.
In a number of school districts, child care providers are operating out of district buildings, offering full-day programs for a limited number of children. School leaders say they provide an option for parents who may be working or not able to care for children while they log on to virtual school at home.
But some families are questioning the logic of opening schools for child care that families must pay for, in buildings officials have opted not to reopen for instruction.
“It’s absurd,” said Daniel Finnegan, a father of a third and first grader in the Springfield Township School District in Montgomery County, where a provider renting space from the district is offering full-day child care. “They’re taking in private money to administer much worse education to 10% of the school district,” while telling “the other 90%, ‘It’s going to be tough.’ ”
School officials said the programs are serving far fewer children than would be present if schools reopened, even under a hybrid model of in-person instruction and virtual learning.
“As a school district, we cannot limit the number of children who attend our schools once we open our doors for in-person instruction,” unlike a child care provider, said Nancy Hacker, Springfield Township superintendent.
Whether and how to reopen schools has been a fraught debate nationally and across the region. Many districts around Philadelphia are starting the year virtually — decisions that have drawn pushback from parents like Finnegan, who believe the pitfalls of virtual instruction outweigh the risks of in-person learning.
Hacker said that even if the district reopened with part-time in-person learning, “we would have considerably more children and students to be concerned about in any of our school buildings than what Kid View” — the day-care provider — “is working with.”
It wasn’t clear how many students Kid View is enrolling in the program; the provider did not respond to a request for comment.
In the Downingtown Area School District, A Child’s Place has enrolled 295 children, spread out among 10 schools, according to district spokesperson Jennifer Shealy. By comparison, the Chester County district enrolls 13,000 students.
“Many people have asked why it is safe to bring in students to [A Child’s Place] but not for a hybrid or full-time instructional model,” Shealy said. She said that even if the district offered staggered instruction, “we are still looking at 6,500-plus students spread across 16 schools,” adding that county health officials have recommended that all schools begin the year virtually.
The cost to enroll in full-day care through A Child’s Place is $175 a week. Some Downingtown parents have called for the program to be free.
“It’s completely unethical in my belief to say that the schools cannot safely open, but you can pay this company” to send children to the same facilities, said Henry Luu, a physician who is among a group of district parents advocating for their schools to reopen.
By law, school districts are not allowed to subsidize child care costs, Shealy said. But she said the $175 weekly rate is less than what the provider would typically charge, and the district negotiated to waive rental fees while school is operating virtually, “with an agreement that the savings would be passed down to families.”
Tracie Costello, CEO and president of A Child’s Place, said the company is charging similar rates in the four Chester County school districts — including West Chester, Coatesville, and Owen J. Roberts — where it is offering full-day programs.
“All of the districts … want to pass savings onto their families,” Costello said. She said her company’s rate was lower than other area programs: “We were really careful about how we priced it.”
Costello said children and staff are being spaced six feet apart, with one employee for every 12 young children, and one for every 15 older students.
The programs are set up to assist children “while they complete their online education model at their school district,” Costello said.
Asked about parents’ questions, Costello said her program had lower enrollment than schools, noting that their Downingtown program is the largest of the four. She said most people using that program are essential workers.
“That’s why it’s really important that something like that exist for those families,” Costello said.
Parents like Brendan Close said they understand the need to accommodate families. But Close, who has a kindergartner and second grader in the Lower Merion School District, doesn’t understand how full-day child care is being offered on district premises.
“Why is that perfectly fine, but it’s not OK for our kids to go to a classroom in a similar structure, taught by their own teachers?” Close said. He isn’t necessarily advocating for children to return to school — “I’m not sure it’s perfectly safe,” he said — but “there should be a consistent policy across the school district.”
District spokesperson Amy Buckman said Right at School would be operating in the district’s administration building, rather than its schools, with room for just 60 students. The program will maintain six feet of social distancing and has submitted a health and safety plan, Buckman said, adding that the district had shared information with families about child care subsidies.
Right at School is also operating a full-day program in the Radnor School District; in both Lower Merion and Radnor, the rate is $300 per week, according to the company’s website.
Like a number of parents, Finnegan, of the Springfield Township district, is frustrated by how schools have addressed reopening decisions. At a recent school board meeting, he said, one member commented that schooling was not babysitting.
“But, the fact is, it kind of is,” Finnegan said. He and his wife, who both work, can “maybe afford” to hire help for their children — but many parents can’t, he said.
The fact that schools are allowing “a select group” of students to return to buildings to learn virtually, at a cost to their families, is “crazy,” he said.