Agencies scramble to offer school-day childcare 

‘Equity pods’ will help low-income families during remote learning 

THOUSANDS OF MASSACHUSETTS students are starting school remotely this fall. Many of their parents are working. Where will those kids go during the day? 

The question is one that myriad social service and childcare organizations are scrambling to address with an unusual amount of collaboration, amid conditions that result in logistical nightmares. Organizations -many of them serving low-income children – are creating spaces for school-hours childcare with classrooms, staff, and support, often at little or no cost to parents. But it has not been easy. 

James Morton, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston, said finding childcare agencies, locations, and money are “three enormous challenges that are all taking place right now simultaneously.” 

And then there are the logistics. Imagine 10 second graders in one classroom on their computers attending different schools remotely. Some start class at 7:50 a.m., others at 8:25 a.m., and they have different breaks for lunch and recess. One staff member must help each student log in, focus on their work, and take breaks. 

“That’s going to be a little bit of craziness,” said Pam Suprenant, senior executive director of youth development at the YMCA of Central Massachusetts, who is planning for exactly that scenario. 

On August 28, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order and state education officials released guidance allowing multiple forms of school-day care for children who are not physically in school. The order allows licensed out-of-school programs – places like YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs that typically provide after-school activities – to operate during the school day while children are learning remotely. Programs that are not already state-licensed may apply to their municipalities for approval to run a “remote learning enrichment program” for children enrolled in school. The guidance also lets parents run learning pods, where up to five families can pool together with a supervising parent.  

We know that remote learning will be part of the educational experience for many students this fall, so it’s critical that we enable parents, after-school providers, and community organizations to offer additional childcare options and learning supports when students are unable to attend school in person,” Education Secretary James Peyser said in a statement. 

While some families, often wealthier ones, have set up their own small learning pods, the state guidance set off a rush among service agencies to figure out how to offer programs one nonprofit leader calls “equity pods” to the children who are most in need.  

Boston provides one example of what this could look like.  

Boston After School & Beyond is an intermediary agency that helps 350 city after-school and summer programs collaborate with each other and with Boston Public Schools on out-of-school learning. Executive director Chris Smith said the coalition is now identifying spaces that can accommodate learning pods, which will be free to families. For example, Franklin Park Zoo will host three indoor pods, three outdoor pods in tents, and up to five programs at a time for field trips. Boston After School & Beyond is talking to administrators of parks, playgrounds, buildings, churches, libraries, office buildings, and housing developments. 

So far, the organization has identified 130 Boston locations. One pod can have up to 13 children, under state guidelines.  

Morton, who has identified 15 locations so far at YMCA branches and other leased spaces, said the spaces need wireless internet, chairs, desks, supplies, and food. They need at least one staffer per 13 children. The YMCA plans to provide place for students to do remote learning in addition to its usual before and after-school care, which includes physical activity, snacks, social-emotional support, and tutoring. 

Morton said organizations are estimating that up to 20,000 children in Boston have working parents and need some supervision, based on a survey sent by the school system, although the number enrolling in programs will probably be significantly lower. Even if it is half of that, Morton said that translates to a need for 800 Boston spaces that can provide learning opportunities and services. 

One question is who will pay. In Boston, the coalition estimates that providing one child with space, staff, and food will cost $250 per week. Morton said the YMCA will charge families on a sliding scale and those who cannot pay will attend free. 

Smith estimated that the total cost of providing school-age childcare in Boston will be $5 million. “The private funding community is going to have to play a role, it’s not like these programs were budgeted for,” he said. 

One funder is Katie Everett, executive director of the Lynch Foundation, which invests in education in Boston. Everett said she is seeing more affluent families choosing private school, private childcare, or moving out of the city. But, she said, “I think there’s a lot of families especially black and brown families in our city, who have no opportunity or access [to childcare].” Her group has been working with partners throughout Boston to create learning pods in housing developments and for low-income families.  

While Lynch said private philanthropy is willing to step up, and has spent $90 million in Boston already since the pandemic started, she said public money is also needed – particularly from Boston Public Schools, which has gotten extra money from federal and city governments but has not yet opened its doors. Lynch said agencies like the YMCA are providing the in-person services the school system is not, so some of the school district’s money should be redirected. “We’ve invested privately $90 million. What has the Boston Public Schools provided for funding to partners that are doing in-person supports for some of our neediest kids?” she asked 

A Boston Public Schools spokesman said the school system is working with partners to launch neighborhood-based, in-person programming in mid-October, with families prioritized by need, and officials are working with the city and private partners to figure out funding.  

Lorena Lopera, executive director of Massachusetts for Latinos for Education, which has been talking to Boston area organizations about the need for childcare, said there is a particular need among Latino families. Many Latino adults are employed in essential positions and cannot work from home. Some had to leave their jobs this spring to care for a child. Lopera said a survey her organization did of Latino families found that 74 percent reported having income or food insecurity. If an organization can provide childcare, she said, that frees adults up to work. 

Lopera said some Latino families also lack internet access, and due to language barriers or their own educational attainment, some parents are unable to help their children do remote work or log on to classes. “Learning loss is only going to be exacerbated if children don’t have the adequate caregiver support,” she said. “To have a dedicated caregiver, whether within the school system or in community-based organizations, providing learning support, it allows for the caregiver to engage with a child in their education.” 

Boston is not alone in trying to address these challenges. In the Worcester area, the YMCA of Central Massachusetts plans to open its doors to nearly 600 children in five locations during the school day. And, Suprenant said, “We can’t meet the demand.” 

Suprenant said there are multiple challenges involved in a quick pivot from after-school to school-time care. Typically, the centers offer swimming, rock climbing, art, and science projects. Now, electricians are scrambling to increase bandwidth and rewire buildings to provide adequate internet service for kids watching online classes all day. The Y has typically relied on college students to staff afterschool programs, but now most of those students are studying remotely or confined to campus. Staff must figure out how to coordinate with parents and with schools, engineer drop-offs with health screenings, and provide healthy lunches and snacks. 

Suprenant said for now, all the districts in her region are starting with remote learning, but she worries that as schools move to hybrid models, it will be harder to keep students in consistent cohorts since different students will be attending the program on different days.  

The cost of care at the YMCA is $350 a week per child and the Y is charging families $225, while trying to raise money for additional financial aid. 

In Western Massachusetts, Michael Moriarty, executive director of OneHolyoke CDC and a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Holyoke schools have been talking to community-based organizations about offering childcare during school hours. Moriarty said he was shocked to see Holyoke Public School data showing that around 2,300 elementary school students have not been actively engaged in remote learning since last March. 

We knew immediately that working families that don’t have the means to organize these pods need them very badly, and continuing on with the way that remote learning took place in Holyoke last spring was not going to be acceptable,” Moriarty said. 

Moriarty, who has been a relentless advocate on the state education board for lower-income students, said his community development agency owns a former Portuguese American club, which had been used as an event space but was largely mothballed during the pandemic. While the financial arrangements are still being worked out, Moriarty said the CDC is partnering with Homework House Holyoke, which provides tutoring for at-risk kids, to use the space for remote learning and enrichment for children who most need it. 

Virginia Dillon, executive director of Holyoke House, said the group will create two pods for 10 to 13 children each, that will be free for families. Staff will supervise children working remotely and offer tutoring as well as outdoor and enrichment activities in the afternoons, along with breakfast and lunch.

“These kind of pods are critically important in communities like Holyoke where most don’t have access to the kind of support more affluent communities can provide,” Dillon said.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Moriarty said, “We’re going to call them equity pods.”