Caroline Kirby was reluctant to come back to school and work with students face to face, worried about whether the children would follow the new COVID-19 requirements such as wearing masks and staying six feet apart from others.
But after several weeks supervising about 10 students in the child care program at Brownsville Elementary, Kirby said it’s going well. Students are diligent about wearing their masks and keeping their distance from others.
Brownsville is one of three Albemarle County schools that are providing child care to division and local government employees during virtual learning. Division officials estimated in August that, between the three schools, the program could accommodate 150 children ages 4 to 12. The program will continue in November as the division moves to Stage Three of its reopening plan, but officials haven’t said if they plan to make changes to it or expand it to more children.
In addition to the students, the staff must adhere to mitigation measures, including wearing masks and keeping their social distance.
“It’s gone really well,” said Kirby, the Extended Day Enrichment Program supervisor at Brownsville. “… Of course, there’ll be a few times when they get really excited to do an activity and want to kind of bunch up together. … You have to remember that you got to sit six feet apart, and we have little markers so they know what the distance is.”
The 12-inch tiles make it easy to show students how far to stay apart, she said.
Other school systems, including Louisa County, also are providing child care to their employees.
Charlottesville City Schools partnered with the Piedmont Family YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia to provide child care options for families. Albemarle County provided in-person access to school buildings to some children and will expand that access to more students in Stage Three, which begins Nov. 9.
The program is offered from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and is staffed through the division’s Extended Day Enrichment Program, which typically provides afterschool care to families during the school year and will continue not to operate during Stage Three.
The program costs $150 per student and the funds are used to pay the staff. In August, officials said they were responding to a request from teachers seeking child care and looked at the issue as employers.
Hollymead Elementary and Monticello High schools are the other locations for the staff child care program.
The division picked Monticello because nearby Mountain View Elementary wouldn’t have the capacity if the division moved to Stage Three, officials said at an August School Board meeting.
Currently, only students without internet access, some English Language Learners and some students with disabilities are allowed into school buildings while other students are taking virtual classes at home.
Under Stage Three, preschoolers through third-graders will go to school twice a week with independent learning on the other three days of the week. In-person access for online classes will extend to more students in special education as well as those who haven’t been engaging with virtual learning.
Katrina Callsen, a member of the county School Board, said in August that she was worried offering child care to staff would create a weird standard.
“We are not allowing kids into our school to receive an education, but we are allowing kids in our school if they’re for our teachers,” she said.
The child care program is following other strategies in Albemarle County schools to limit the spread of COVD-19 and provides a glimpse into what a return to in-person schooling might look like.
Each day, parents in the child care program are asked to complete a COVID-19 screening before dropping off their children. Students’ temperatures are checked in the morning and before they are picked up in the evening.
Officials were expecting to have 50 children at Brownsville but currently only have nine. At Hollymead, about 18 children were signed up earlier this month and Monticello had 12, though numbers can change week to week. Each site can accommodate 50 children.
At Brownsville, the nine students are split into two pods, which remain separate throughout the day, from the virtual classes to lunch to outdoor breaks. The maximum number for a pod is 10 students.
“I know we could just have one pod, but we might have more students join,” Kirby said, adding that several parents have reached out about the program.
Kirby said the children bring their own school supplies and school-issued computers. She lets them leave their computers at the school overnight because their backpacks already are full.
For breaks or outdoor activities, each pod has its own tub of sporting supplies.
“So the rule of thumb is, before they use the ball, they have to wash their hands,” Kirby said. “And then they can go play with the ball, and they can actually play with somebody in their pod with the ball. After they’re done, they have to give the ball to the teacher. We have these big huge white buckets of disinfectant wipes that we have to wipe the balls down with.”
The children then wash their hands after playing with the balls.
They’ve taken over a wing of Brownsville, including the gym. Each pod has its own room, and bathrooms are nearby. Masks are required when students are inside or outside, including when they are on the playground. Two tables outside the wing of classrooms are designated mask-free zones if the students need a break.
The staff had three days together to set up and complete training about the virus guidelines and protocols with Eileen Gomez, the division’s COVID coordinator.
Kirby said the school’s principal, Jason Crutchfield, has been very supportive and brought down couches for the students.
Kirby said the small numbers at Brownsville make the program easier to handle. With its current staffing, the program could accommodate as many as 20 students.
One challenge at the beginning of the school year was managing all of the different schedules of students. The division doesn’t have a consistent schedule for virtual learning at the elementary level, while the middle and high school students are following a consistent schedule of four classes a day.
At the elementary level, students are grouped into either morning or afternoon sessions for live, online classes, otherwise known as synchronous learning. The schedule within those blocks varies from teacher to teacher, leading to students in the same group — morning or afternoon — having breaks at different times.
“Even lunch times are different,” Kirby said.
For the different schedules, program staff made sure to write down the lunch times for each child so they could keep track of when they need to eat, Kirby said.
For the most part, the children picked up the virtual learning schedule from day one, she said.
Kirby said the program staff works together during the day to help during the different breaks.
“If a kid has a 10-minute break, I’ll take them to the gym for 10 minutes,” she said. “Then we’ll play basketball or maybe we’ll go to the playground and run around.”
On Fridays and when virtual school is over, Kirby said they turn to the enrichment activities they’ve used during the traditional afterschool program. Fridays don’t have live, online classes.
“One thing that kids really enjoy on Fridays is coding,” she said. “We have these little Ozobots.”
Monday through Thursday, Kirby said, the staff supports the students in their classes and helps to keep them on task.
“Even if parents are working from home, this is a great option for them,” she said. “[Their children] can do their virtual learning here. We’re learning coaches. We’re here to support them. … And then also when they have downtime, we’ve got fun things for them to do.”
And the students seem to be enjoying themselves, she said.
“We have kids that get upset when their parents pick them up because we’re having so much fun,” Kirby said. “They’ll ask if they can Zoom their parents so they can stay later.”