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CCLC Executive Director Lisa Paine-Wells and Program Director Lisa Pendleton in center’s new building, which is licensed to hold around 20 children and should be ready within weeks.

After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools in mid-March, Jess Settle scrambled to find babysitters for her four children, ages 11, nine, six and one. Settle works at Piedmont Broadband and had to be in the office to field phone calls and respond to a growing number of customers, but she couldn’t leave her kids home alone.

She reached out to family and friends, posted a call on the Facebook group Rappnet and eventually started her own group, Rappahannock Child Care Connect, to help link sitters with parents in need.

“It’s been a real struggle,” Settle said. “I can swing having them off school for two months during the summer and having to pay babysitters. But after that it almost feels like [I’m] not coming to work because I have to hand over two-thirds of my paycheck for babysitters.”

With school about to reopen, many parents are in a similar position: in need of child care for the days when their children are remote learning and then, if they’re able to find it, needing to scrape together the money to pay for an expense they hadn’t planned for.

The new hybrid schedule at the public school that will provide part in-person and part virtual instruction has put some parents in the difficult position of deciding whether to go back to work or stay home and help oversee their children’s education.

Few options

The Child Care & Learning Center (CCLC) outside the town of Washington has expanded its after-school program for children ages five to 12 to accommodate them on remote learning days and on Wednesdays, when everyone does virtual learning.

It’s currently the only child care provider in the county serving kids four and under and is near its current capacity of 90 children. Baby Bear owner Connie Reid closed her business in Sperryville last month for personal reasons and although she’s keeping her license, she doesn’t anticipate reopening until 2021.

Due to the lack of day care, Rappahannock County Public School (RCPS) Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley said the district had a recent flurry of requests for four-day in-person learning. It accepted 65 applications out of 94 submissions, she said, with financial hardship and lack of child care the top two reasons for the requests.

To help ease the shortage, RCPS recently reserved 15 spaces at a new school day camp run by Verdun Adventure Bound in Rixeyville that will launch Sept. 8 and is providing a bus to transport students there.

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The camp costs $60 a day and will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, with discounts for full-week registration. It will serve grades 3 to 12 and have a certified teacher on hand to help students who need homework assistance.

Verdun is also planning to provide additional activities once kids are done with their school work, such as gardening, fishing, kayaking and wood working and is opening up the challenge course so kids can learn some additional life skills, said Executive Director Sean McElhinney.

The camp, which is open to kids from Rappahannock, Fauquier and Culpeper counties, is capping the number of students at 40 since that’s all it can accommodate if they need to move inside due to weather.

CCLC, meanwhile, has accepted two batches of 20 children for its full-day school-age program Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and hopes to serve up to 50 children at three different locations on Wednesdays. The child care program for the younger kids can accommodate 50 children under Phase 3 guidelines issued by the state, which allows for 10 children per classroom.

Executive Director Lisa Paine-Wells said the center is trying to slot children in where they can to help families on the waiting list for certain age groups, but that means constantly trying to balance out classrooms so they don’t exceed the limit.

Class sizes and sanitation

In keeping with recommended health and safety procedures, CCLC is checking temperatures of everyone who enters, enforcing regular handwashing and requiring masks for anyone over the age of 10.

The center has increased cleaning and sanitation and invested in an air scrubber for the ventilation system, Paine-Wells said. For now, it’s keeping children outside much of the day, with teachers staggering their time on the playground so no two groups of kids are intermixing. It has also organized activities so children have their own space and materials.

So far those procedures have been working. The center hasn’t registered a case of COVID-19 since reopening April 14, when they were providing care mostly for children of essential workers.

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Program Director, Lisa Pendleton scans a toy with a lamp.

Yet Paine-Wells is aware of the challenges ahead.

“It’s really an ongoing battle,” she said. “The kids know there is a reason why the staff are wearing masks. They know there is a reason why they need to be maintaining social distancing. . . . But they’re kids.”

A new building licensed to hold around 20 children should be ready within weeks, and the center plans to use that space and an outdoor pavilion for the school-aged program. Until it’s ready, RCPS is providing space in the auxiliary gym and library at the elementary school and CCLC is looking at other backup locations should the program continue into October.

A perfect storm

Despite the measures schools are putting in place, concerns over potential health risks have put many parents on the fence about whether or not to send their children back.

“For some of the families that are working remotely, it is an enormous amount of pressure to be responsible for both education and for child care,” Paine-Wells said. “I think from our other families it’s just a sense that they have to go to work, that their employers want them back and they don’t want to lose a job.”

Many of the families at CCLC attend on full or partial scholarships, and the center is offering the school-age program for $400 a month, half its full-day rate for preschool children. Even at that amount, however, Paine-Wells said they’re still getting a number of requests for financial assistance.

Thanks to a recent influx of money from the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation and a matching grant, they’ll have $22,500 to help families in need reduce the monthly tuition of $400 per child to an affordable amount. But they also need to continue paying salaries and benefits to teachers despite serving fewer children.

“And like most child care centers around the state, we’re going to [be] operating at a deficit this year because we’re taking in less tuition than we have expenses. It’s just kind of a perfect storm,” Paine-Wells said.

Falling back on family

Shannon Ennis, an essential worker with the Fauquier County government, is grateful to have found spots at CCLC for her two young children, but even at half price, she’s still paying more than she would just for after-school care.

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Child Care & Learning Center teacher Elvira Yanez cools off with students at summer daycare. 

Ennis was looking forward to having both of her children in full-time schooling this year and said parents she knows in similar positions had plans for the money they were going to be saving on child care.

Now, some families are turning to full-time remote learning and relying on in-home babysitters or creating pods where they can alternate child care responsibilities.

Across the country many parents are leaning on family members to help babysit or tutor their children or using a mix of friends, family, babysitting services or professional child care to cover their needs. And like many places, there are now more children in need of care in Rappahannock and fewer places offering it.

“I feel like parents have to decide whether to put a roof over their head or teach them, and I just don’t think parents should be in that predicament,” Ennis said.

She worries most about the parents who can’t afford day care and don’t have family to step in and assist.

“If parents can find day care, it’s hurting them financially and then there are some parents that don’t have a day care backup,” she noted.

Rappahannock County Department of Social Services Director Jennifer Parker said they’re already seeing a surge in child care subsidy applications from parents scrambling for assistance. But because they’ve already extended the maximum number of subsidy slots they have been allocated by the state, she doesn’t know how they’ll meet the additional needs.

For Settle, who pays for a sitter once a week, having to balance being a parent, teacher and employee is wearing her thin. The Facebook group she started currently has 130 members, mostly moms for whom two days of in-person schooling may not offer much of a solution.

“Am I the only person struggling with child care/working (almost) full time/ virtual learning. How are you affording this?” Settle recently asked in a post on her Facebook page.

The answer from a host of other mothers: no, you’re not alone.

By Sara Schonhardt — For Foothills Forum


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