Kayla Groat got multiple calls and emails from her kids’ teachers in the first few days of school. Her kids were late logging in, or missing classes … how could they help?
Groat wasn’t sure. She isn’t home with her three kids while they do virtual learning in the Boise School District. Her kids log in to school from a day camp at the Boys & Girls Club while Groat and her husband work full-time.
The low-cost childcare option has been a lifesaver for Groat’s family, she said, and an improvement on their virtual learning situation this spring when she gave up trying to balance three kids’ class schedules with her full-time job.
Still, in the first week of school, Groat and other Boise School District parents felt available child-care options were an imperfect solution for young children’s virtual learning needs. Elementary students struggled to fully engage in school, parents felt out of the loop, and families end up paying for childcare while schooling would otherwise be free.
Groat is grateful for the Boys & Girls Club. But she knows the club environment isn’t as beneficial for her kids as being in class, or having the full-time attention of a stay-at-home parent.
“I know my kids are going to be behind academically,” Groat said. “It’s a really tough situation to be in: Do we pay the bills, do we pay the mortgage, do we keep food on the table or do we prioritize our kids’ education?”
Low-cost options for working parents
The Boys & Girls Club of Ada County and the Boise Parks and Recreation Department both opened day camps where working parents can send their students for childcare and virtual learning while schools are online. The Boys & Girls club charges $6 per day and Boise Parks and Recreation charges $80 a week, and has scholarship options for families who can’t afford that cost.
Program directors say they’re doing whatever they can to help kids engage with school — but at the same time, they’re not responsible for teaching the students.
“We can fill the role of supervisor, but we recognize that we’re not educators, nor do we want to be in that roll,” said Doug Holloway, director of Boise Parks and Recreation.
The Parks and Recreation department has partnered with the Boise School District for some help. Each of the five Kid City child care locations has at least one paraprofessional on site to help between 12 and 24 kids for a few hours each morning.
The childcare locations might be the closest thing to a community learning environment that Ada County students have access to while most area schools remain closed because of the high-risk of coronavirus spread. But the experience is far from typical school. At a KidCity location that Idaho Education News visited this week children had their temperatures checked at the door and were asked to wash their hands right away. Kids wore masks full time, and while they played with toys or in small groups during recess breaks, learning was an individual experience. Students sat alone at their computers, spread out only four or five to a room, mostly clicking through lessons in silence.
Turning a community center into a classroom does invite some challenges to keeping students’ attention focused, Holloway said. Joey Schueler, director of operations at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Ada County, said his staff ran into challenges with students leaving classes early the first week because they didn’t know their schedules, though he said that was a rare occurrence.
The club will do what it can to help with learning, Schueler said, but he said there is no substitute for getting kids back in the classroom, once that’s safe.
“Just like superintendents have been very clear, (they) don’t expect virtual learning to be a direct substitute for in-class instruction, I think we’re all kind of aware that we’re doing the best we can in uncertain times with difficult circumstances and safety risks,” Schueler said.
Groat said her kids’ situation has gradually improved since virtual learning started on Aug. 18. Her student’s school is communicating directly with the Boys & Girls Club to check up on the kids.
Groat said it seems her student’s rigorous online schedule was created with the idea that an adult would sit next to them, to facilitate learning full time. But she can’t do that, and she doesn’t expect Boys & Girls club staff to do that either. She worries they could fall behind.
“It’s better than it was in the first week, but I don’t feel like it’s ever going to be what it could be if the kids were in the classroom,” she said.
Ann Walker agrees. Walker’s second grader is just too young to be expected to consistently engage with classes on the computer, she said. He attends one of the Parks and Recreation camps at Whittier Elementary, and in the first week and a half of school the teacher reported the boy was distracted, kept playing with the mute button on his computer and didn’t always do the activities that were assigned to him in class.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Walker said. “Is he sleeping when the monitor is on? I don’t know. It’s frustrating.”
At 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the two dozen elementary students at Whitney Elementary School’s Kid City camp were spread throughout the community center’s rooms and common areas, sprawled in lounge chairs or sitting spaced out at long tables with their laptops propped open. Each wore a mask and listened to their teachers on colorful headsets. Paraprofessionals and office staff roamed in and out of the quiet rooms, peeking at lessons on computer screens.
Without 24 individual staff members, it’s impossible to walk every child through their individual schedule and class assignments, said Barbara English a youth recreation specialist with Boise Parks and Recreation who runs Whitney’s Kid City. Some of the elementary students go to Whitney Elementary, so their teachers can call or walk over to the attached community center to make sure their students are on track. Other students come from elementary schools and charters all over the city, with different schedules and expectations.
“It’s been a challenge that they all know how to log in, that they all know where to go,” English said. “It’s been a big learning curve for all of us.”
By week two of online school, students and staff were starting to get the hang of things, English said. Staff made charts with student’s individual schedules so they could check exactly when students were supposed to be in class. The kids themselves could rattle off how long they had for recess and what time their teachers expected them back online. Whitney teachers walked over to explain lessons to students who were slipping behind. And community center employees were recognizing how to work with different personalities, learning which students needed to sit in the office so staff could lend an extra hand with their assignments.
“We’re learning,” English said. “It’s a big partnership with the teachers and the parents.”