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Students work on a project during an Urban Promise summer program. The nonprofit pivoted to provide full-day care and distance learning supervision this summer. Credit: Brooke Brown Photography/Urban Promise

When schools in northern California shut down in mid-March due to the coronavirus, Casino Fajardo and his wife did their best to balance watching their children while working full-time. For several months, they switched off supervising their children, 5 and 9, while taking back-to-back video calls and responding to in-person work responsibilities, which were at times required for Fajardo in his role as construction director for a local school district. Both often stayed up until midnight or later to catch up on work.

It was impossible to provide much attention to their kids. “Honestly, other than turning around to make sure they’re not breaking something or making sure they have a snack, it’s difficult for us to really be engaged with them,” Fajardo said. They knew they needed help, especially with more distance learning looming as the school year began.

But they had few options. Their children’s grandparents are elderly and more at risk of contracting coronavirus. Joining a “pod” with several families would be complicated and expensive; some parents are spending upwards of $1,000 a month per child to do so this year. Instead, the Fajardo’s turned to their local YMCA for help. Their children began attending a local center for daily care that evolved into distance learning support when school started in August.

At the Y, their children receive meals, time to play outside and extension activities, like science class, all at a cost that is subsidized for many families and free to others, depending on the location of the center and each family’s income.

The continuation of distance learning has put millions of families in an untenable position: in 2019, 76 percent of mothers and 92 percent of fathers whose youngest child was between the age of 6 and 17 were employed. Affluent parents have turned to pricey options such as pods, tutoring centers or karate and dance studios that have transformed to offer distance learning supervision (some advertise prices that run upwards of $14,000 each semester). But a few organizations, including the YMCA, have stepped up to provide crucial, free or affordable child care assistance.

“Normally, it’s only in the afterschool hours [when parents decide], ‘Do I go to work to earn money for my family and leave my kids at home alone … or do I forego work during those hours and be present with my children but forego making a salary to support my children?’ Now instead of making that decision three hours a day, they’re making that decision the entire day.”

Jimmy McQuilkin, executive director of Urban Promise.

Urban Promise, a nonprofit that runs a summer camp, afterschool program and mentorship program for children and teenagers in Charlotte, North Carolina, is one of them. This school year, the organization has pivoted to all-day care and distance learning support for more than 200 children who live in low-income neighborhoods in the city.

“Normally, it’s only in the afterschool hours [when parents decide], ‘Do I go to work to earn money for my family and leave my kids at home alone … or do I forego work during those hours and be present with my children but forego making a salary to support my children?’” said Jimmy McQuilkin, executive director of Urban Promise. “Now instead of making that decision three hours a day, they’re making that decision the entire day.”

McQuilkin said Urban Promise hopes to solve “the impossible choice” parents are facing. This school year, the nonprofit will host small groups of students at several churches around the city supervised by classroom facilitators at no cost for parents. Children will receive breakfast and lunch each day and enrichment activities like art in the afternoon.

As these organizations step up to provide child care and supervision, there are still immense challenges. The YMCA typically relies on college students to staff its afterschool program, but those students aren’t necessarily available during the day. And Urban Promise will spend more than $200,000 this year for 30 to 35 new staff members who will supervise small groups of students, on top of its regular program expenses. Organizations also have to account for added costs for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for employees.

Program officials say they’re determined to overcome these challenges. “The reality we know now is children in low-income families fell further behind in the spring and I think that was accentuated with the normal summer learning loss,” McQuilkin said. “There is academic urgency of making sure this is a school year when students don’t fall further behind.”

For Fajardo, having affordable child care has boosted the academic success of his children. It’s also helped everyone’s mental health. He and his wife have been able to work full time once again during the day and his children have received more attention and support with their schoolwork than they would have received at home. “I don’t know what we would do without the YMCA being available,” Fajardo said. “It’s reduced our stress tremendously.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about affordable child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news outlet focused on innovation and inequality in education. Sign up for our newsletters here.

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Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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