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With Most Kids Not Fully Returning To Schools, Limited Child Care Alternatives Emerge

A father drops his son off at a YWCA Head Start day care in St. Louis in October 2017. Child care advocates worry there won't be enough care options this fall for parents to return to work.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
A father drops his son off at a YWCA Head Start day care in St. Louis in October 2017. Child care advocates worry there won't be enough care options this fall for parents to return to work.

As schools in the St. Louis region plan for a predominately virtual start to the academic year, children may again be left largely to their own devices.

And yes, that’s in both senses of the phrase.

Child care advocates say structures are not yet in place to supervise thousands of children who will be out of school and should be completing lessons and homework on computers while their parents need to work. Virtual lessons likely will mean parents continue to work from home, reduce their hours or are pushed entirely out of the workforce so that they can watch their children for part or all of the week.

“This particular situation truly keeps me up at night,” said Robin Phillips, the chief executive of Child Care Aware of Missouri, a nonprofit.

Nonprofits and some area school districts are quickly trying to put offerings together in the weeks before school starts Aug. 24, but there is little in place just yet.

“The fluid nature of this process is what makes it a challenge for everybody that's working real hard to do this,” said Wilford Pinkney, director of the St. Louis Mayor's Office of Children, Youth and Families. “So it's hard to even pin down.”

Pinkney said any large-scale program would need to follow all the same public health guidelines that are making it hard to open schools to full capacity, so offering something to the scale possibly needed will be difficult.

Day care and early childhood education offerings have not returned to pre-pandemic capacity, said Child Care Aware’s Phillips. And now, if schools continue to stay closed, demand will increase.

“This thing is so huge,” Phillips said. “Truly, it has to pivot in a way that it never has before. I want to have conversations around 'how do we move forward and look out the windshield?' And yet, we're faced with a pandemic where, unfortunately, the playbook’s getting written as we go.”

Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs are accustomed to offering summer camps and after-school programs, but not full-time youth care. Nonprofits, advocates and city officials are in talks about what, if anything, can be offered during the workday this fall.

The Gene Slay’s Girls & Boys Club of St. Louis will start planning on Monday for how to offer what executive director Robert Puricelli is calling “learning hubs” — think study halls — for kids aged 6 and up to come and do schoolwork and grab lunch under adult supervision.

Parents have taken to social media in large numbers to discuss ways to pool resources by forming homeschool pods or to hire tutors and nannies. But the latter is an expensive alternative that most public school families likely won’t be able to afford.

Along with potential further learning loss from not being in school, children receive several ancillary benefits and services from being in a school building.

“We’re greatly concerned for a number of reasons,” said Casey Hanson, director of outreach for Kids Win Missouri, a child advocacy nonprofit.

Hanson’s concerns include kids getting proper nutrition, mental health services and checks for child abuse.

Parents in Rockwood begged the district to open its buildings five days a week, rather than the hybrid option currently being planned. Parents have signed a petition, and many showed up to a school board meeting Thursday to voice opposition to the current offering.

But four neighboring St. Louis County districts — Ritenour, Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant and Maplewood Richmond Heights — have decided to start the school year completely online.

University City's school system is finalizing plans with outside providers to watch elementary students on days they’re not in the classroom, a district spokesperson said. Other districts are exploring the idea while others don't intend to offer day care.

Advocates say the solution starts with more funding to better pay child care providers and increase spots in day cares. The industry is lobbying Congress for $50 billion in aid to be distributed nationally.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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Ryan is a reporter on the education desk at St. Louis Public Radio, covering both higher education and the many school districts in the St. Louis region. He has previously reported for public radio stations WFYI in Indianapolis and WRVO in upstate New York. He began his journalism career working part time for WAER while attending Syracuse University. He's won multiple reporting awards and his work, which has aired on NPR, The Takeaway and WGBH's Innovation Hub. Having grown up in Burlington, Vt., he often spends time being in the woods hiking, camping, and skiing.