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EDUCATION

Parents of school-age children meet fragile Cayuga County child care system

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Cayuga County-area parents who suddenly find themselves scrambling for child care as some school districts close buildings will encounter a system already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The good news, Child Care Solutions Executive Director Lori A. Schakow said, is that there are currently some openings. The bad news is that many providers are dealing with financial challenges.

According to CCS's most recent survey of Cayuga County child care providers, there are 34 programs open out of 47 licensed to operate, with 102 seats open. Among providers within the Auburn Enlarged City School District, there were 17 still open out of 19, with 56 slots available.

Some local families may suddenly need child care due to recent school building closures. The Auburn school district announced Tuesday that all students will be switching to remote-only instruction until mid-January due to the spread of COVID-19 in the community. The Port Byron Central School District said Wednesday it is transitioning to online-only instruction through Christmas break.

Schakow said parents seeking care from a registered and licensed program should be able to find options. But she noted that many parents simply aren't back to workplaces due to the pandemic, so they're watching their children themselves or they are working remotely. Others are still fearful of having their children in a group setting.

The result is a child care system with many providers struggling financially, and some not in a position to handle a sudden surge.

"(Parents are) using high school and college students, or unemployed relatives or other resources besides registered and licensed care, so the child care programs themselves have continued to struggle to generate revenue," she said.

On average, most programs in Cayuga and Onondaga counties are currently operating at around 40% capacity, Schakow said. It is difficult for most organizations to find and keep qualified staff, she said, especially during the pandemic.

She said that running the programs isn't cheap, with most of the cost going toward staff. Other financial issues include paying for personal protective equipment during the pandemic.

During remote school learning, these child care providers are also expected to be "basically schoolteachers," Schakow said, even if they weren't necessarily trained for that.

Some child care programs in the county have shuttered during the pandemic. The longer they remain closed, she said, the more difficult it will be for them to open again. New programs also haven't been opening as much as they were in the past.

"Because of the pandemic, even programs that want to open, like a brand new program, it's a much harder process now, because we can't just get right out there and do the pre-inspection and things like that that need to happen before they can be registered (and) licensed," Schakow said.

It hasn't all been doom and glow, though. She noted more business leaders have reached out to CCS during the pandemic about supporting their employees' child care needs. She believes the outbreak has shined a spotlight on child care issues.

"There are our youngest citizens. If we really want them to grow up to be successful going forward, we need to have the supports in place," she said.

One of the busiest providers of child care services in Auburn during the pandemic has been the Booker T. Washington Community Center. The center this year launched a program called EDUcare, in which students enrolled in the school district's hybrid learning model would go to BTW on the days they weren't going to a school for in-person education

Denise Farrington, the center's excutive director, said 82 students are enrolled, but that won't change due to the Auburn district's announcement because of COVID-19 restrictions related to the size of the facility. In addition, enrolled students won't be able to come in on days they would usually have been in school.

Farrington said that situation is "a little frustrating."

"You wouldn't believe how many of our families come in crying, and we have a lot of single-parent households, and it's been really rough on the families," she said.

The BTW program will continue as long it has funding, Farrington said. She noted the program costs around $45,000 a month, with costs such as staffing and providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a snack. Many state grants aren't paying right now, she added, but organizations such as the United Way of Cayuga County, the Emerson Foundation and the Allyn Foundation have been generous in keeping the undertaking afloat. She said BTW doesn't charge families for the program, because it's funded through grants. She said BTW also received a $16,000 Community Development Block Grant through the city of Auburn, which allowed the organization to buy desktop computers and upgrade their internet.

Amanda Gould, executive director of child care for Cayuga Community College, said that when Auburn schools announced its phase-in hybrid plan in August, the college's school age program was expanded. The kindergarten-through-seventh-grade program was moved from the college's child care center on Wall Street to the college's campus. Currently, 58 students are enrolled. Gould said there are 12 full-time spots available.

Gould said they have multiple families where one parent or both are essential workers.

"We are doing everything we can following COVID procedures and staying open as long as we possibly can," she said. "In order for those parents to work we need to be available."

Kenn Ward, principal for the E. John Gavras Center's day care and preschool, said there are three to four spots available in its toddler program, and up to 12 for students in kindergarten through age 12.

Saying he has noticed an uptick in need, Ward urged parents to not wait to call organizations with availability.

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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Education and City Reporter

Hello, my name is Kelly Rocheleau, and I cover the education and city beats for The Citizen and auburnpub.com. I've been writing for the paper since December 2016.

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