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Learning Hubs Serve As A Temporary Solution, Though Funding Will Dry Up By The End Of The Year

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Colleen Vilsack, left, helps a student during virtual learning at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania's Millvale location.

There’s new demand for daytime childcare for Allegheny County families, as most school districts are teaching students remotely either full- or part-time.

To temporarily fill that gap, the county’s Department of Human Services, the United Way and the early childhood advocacy group Trying Together partnered to distribute CARES Act funding to 60 providers. Those providers now open their doors during the day as a space where students can learn online in smaller groups of students than would be in school buildings. According to the county health department, there have been no cases or outbreaks linked to the hubs.

At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania's Northern Area Clubhouse in Millvale, for example, students are dropped off in the mornings with their laptops, headphones and masks. They have their temperature taken and then spend the day rotating between virtual classes, hands-on activities, lunch and game time. In many ways it’s similar to what you’d see in a typical school – though students are wearing masks and stay in the same groups throughout the day.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A student takes a break from remote learning to play in the game room at the Millvale Boys and Girls Club.

Recently, in the kindergarten and first-grade room, a student mirrored his teacher and balanced on one leg during a morning exercise, as another student wrote letters on a dry erase board and held it up to the computer camera. Then a kindergartener stoop up and announced she had finished a meeting. She was on a Zoom call with her class. She called over Colleen Vilsack, who helped her log into her art class.

Vilsack is the quality regulations and evaluation manager for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. She’s new to the job, but much of her time is now spent remembering student passwords and trying to keep them all on track. Some of the younger kids call her their teacher.

“They’re a little confused. The stability is great. They know where they are at and they’ve been here before in the past. I think they are having a little bit of difficulty of acknowledging that they are in a new step in their lives, because there isn’t a school for them to go to physically,” she said.

Most of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania locations are at capacity and have a waiting list.  

Right now, we're all day," said Vilsack. "And it's a big transition for us because it was typically, you know, before and after school care and doing all the programing for those time slots. And now we're doing all day and our extra stuff on top of it. So it is a busy day. Busy kiddos everywhere."

Amy Malen with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ Office of Community Services said about 1,000 students are enrolled throughout the county.

We have heard from various providers that parents have literally cried tears of joy that they had been so stressed out thinking that they were going to have to quit their job, because they had small children and didn't know how it was going to work. So we've heard really universally across the board that parents are so thankful that there is some option for their children,” Malen said.

While the hubs have been a popular resource, Malen said the funding will dry up by the end of the year without additional government funding. She said the groups haven’t identified sources of funding for 2021.

Providers say one of the most pressing needs is access to reliable internet. A recent analysis from the Alliance for Excellent Education found that an estimated 16.9 million children don’t have high-speed broadband Internet at home.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The Carnegie of Homestead plans to allow groups of students accompanied by an adult to use the library's wifi and study tables during the day for class work.

At the Carnegie of Homestead, Executive Director Carol Shrieve has noticed students sitting outside with laptops and tablets.

“We would see families that they need access to WiFi. And so they were on our steps or they were hanging in the courtyard. We see that all the time. And soon as I see a laptop or an iPad or some type of PDA or tablet, I know the kids are working on school work,” she said.

The library is only open for limited hours now, but it is launching a program that will allow groups of students to come in with an adult to use the space and WiFi and technology.

Malen, of the county’s department of human services, said more of those informal spaces have started to open to meet the needs of communities. But for now, it’s a waiting game to decide if the partner groups should expand existing hubs.

Cara Ciminillo is the executive director of the early childhood advocacy group Trying Together. She said the partners are reliant on what the school districts decide to do.

What we don't know and what I think families then don't know, is this a short term need that I have? Or is this going to be a long term need based on what happens with the district's decision around whether they'll go back to in person?” she said.

Pittsburgh Public Schools’ 23,000 students, for example, are set to return to buildings in early November.

The district issued a child care survey but only received about 1,000 responses. 

"Unfortunately, we didn't get the type of response we were hoping to receive," said Melanie Claxton the district's Out of School Time Coordinator. "But we recognize that a lot of families are returning to work. So [we're] really thinking about the fact that they need a safe place to learn and engage in their learning opportunities as we're in this virtual learning process."

Claxton said many providers are at capacity, but it's still a challenge to determine the true need. The district hasn't opened any learning hubs in district facilities. 

"I think part of the challenge we're also seeing is the fact that there are more spots available in certain communities," she said. "We know in certain communities like our west end and south locations don't have as many opportunities for families to provide this kind of in-person support."

While PPS students are set to arrive to buildings in early November, providers say they are preparing for the possibility of yet another change.