What do working parents do when school starts Monday? Communities have this solution

Though Miami-Dade County Public Schools may open brick-and-mortar schools ahead of schedule if COVID-19 cases continue to trend downward, the first day of school on Monday leaves some working parents in a lurch.

The school district will remain online for at least a few weeks and, to resemble a sense of normalcy, will teach students virtually during regular school hours. But for parents who can’t stay home with their children, some municipalities, county parks and non-profit organizations are stepping up to help them out.

These groups have created “pop-up” academic centers, or places where parents can drop off their children so they can be supervised during online learning. Children come with their own electronic device, headphones and a mask.

The centers provide staff to supervise children and make sure they’re on-task with their learning until they’re ready to be picked up at the end of the day.

“I’ve actually heard from a lot of parents who don’t have the funds to pay for childcare,” said Town of Miami Lakes Mayor Manny Cid during a virtual council meeting Aug. 18. “I want to find a solution. I want to be helpful. I think our town could be helpful.”

In Miami Lakes’ case, the town leveraged its existing partnership with the YMCA for its “E-Learning Support Day Camp.”

The program begins Monday and serves students ages 5 to 12 and costs $135 a week for residents and $155 a week for non-residents. The town created space for 36 students at the Roberto Alonzo Community Center and 18 students at the town’s youth center.

Also on Monday, the City of Miami Springs is accommodating 15 students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the Rebeca Sosa Theater upstairs at city hall. They gave priority to children of city workers, then opened up to city residents.

Miami Springs charges $80 a week. They have one staffer for every nine students.

“We’re trying to get the kids to feel like they’re going to school,” said Parks and Recreation Director Omar Luna.

He said the program could expand to accommodate more students, but finding staffers is an issue, as many parks and rec employees are college students who are heading back to class. Luna thinks that’s the reason why more municipalities aren’t offering a similar program.

Both municipalities got their ideas from the South Florida Parks Coalition. Led by Maria Nardi, director of Miami Dade County Parks, parks and rec directors of 34 municipalities, three state parks and two federal parks have met virtually regularly to discuss the role parks play in getting families back to work and for keeping kids healthy.

Nardi said the county has identified 17 facilities in unincorporated areas that could serve as drop-off locations for parents. Not yet ready to open on the first day of school, she said the county is surveying which areas are most in need. A list of facilities could be ready by next week, and the county will ask the school district to advertise those centers.

The county doesn’t have a fee listed yet, but will accept students 6 to 14 years old. Parents can drop off at 7:30 a.m. and pick up at 6 p.m. Students must bring their own lunch and laptop.

Nardi highlighted how essential parks are to restoring normalcy in the community.

“I think more than ever, it’s been very clear how important parks are to many people in the community,” she said.

Boys and Girls Clubs of Miami-Dade has also stepped up. Four of the group’s centers — Kendall, Hank Kline, South Beach, and Northwest Clubs — are making spaces for students. Hank Kline and Kendall clubs charge $65 per month, per student, and South Beach and Northwest Clubs charge $50 per month, per student. Lunch, snacks and recess are provided until 6 p.m.

Those four sites can accommodate 198 students, with nine students and one staffer in each room. Boys and Girls Clubs of Miami-Dade President Alex Rodriguez-Roig says those spots are filled to capacity with waiting lists for all four clubs.

“To me, one [waiting list] is too many,” he said. “ The work that we do is the kind of work that you don’t want to have a waiting list.”

Rodriguez-Roig said the pandemic is extra hard on parents who do not speak English.

“They have a difficult time helping their kids out on the computers and all this stuff they have to deal with,” he said. “Those kids, if they don’t have the help they need from organizations like us, they struggle and fall behind.”

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Miami-Dade are also working on bringing supervised spaces for students to corporate work spaces. Because many are working from home, the organization is looking to use an empty board room to have staff supervise students as they learn.

The academic pop-up spaces were a no-go for the City of Miami Beach. The idea was abandoned due to potential safety and logistical issues.

“If it is not safe for the children to go back into [the] classroom, there is no reason to believe it is any safer for the kids or staff to have virtual classrooms in Parks facilities or other municipal buildings,” City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote in a memo to the City Commission on Aug. 19.

“Frankly, the school system is much better situated to provide such a service with respect to both space capacity and Wi-Fi connectivity. MDCPS have obviously concluded that it is safer for both students and employees to start the year virtually.”

The distance-learning center would have likely been run like the city’s summer-camp program, with children split up into small groups supervised by counselors. That concerned city staff because camps in the city and across Miami-Dade County closed early this summer after at least 15 staffers and three kids, including a 7-year-old in Miami Beach, were diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Despite our best efforts, we ultimately terminated the summer program when too many individuals tested positive for COVID-19,” Morales wrote in the memo. “There is no reason to believe that we would achieve a different result under this new initiative.”

Miami Springs also had to shut down its summer camp in July after a city hall employee, who never came in contact with campers, tested positive for COVID.

“We could’ve stayed open but honestly, administration was like, we should shut it down,” said Luna, the Miami Springs parks and rec director.

The Miami Lakes council had an hour-long discussion, not about whether to have the program — that they all agreed on — but for how long they should provide the program.

Councilmember Marilyn Ruano suggested adding a date to sunset the program. She compared the issue to how Miami Lakes chipped in to supply police officers to protect local schools after the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

She said the Miami-Dade County school district “stringed us along for I don’t know how long without signing our agreement, without refunding us.”

She called the town’s program a “Band-Aid” and said the school district won’t feel pressure to reopen schools if municipalities like Miami Lakes find solutions.

“If the children are not safe in a school, they are not safe in our community centers,” Ruano said during the virtual meeting. “Our job is to continue to stress that these schools need to open.

“Everybody’s working, teachers are not an exception. I understand the unions are very powerful, but we need to make a point that everybody needs to go back to work, or they can’t get paid. You don’t get paid to sit at home. You need to go to work.”

Councilmember Carlos Alvarez, who is also the principal of the City of Hialeah Educational Academy (COHEA), had called for these academic pop-up centers.

“I do not feel comfortable… putting a stop to this until the schoolhouse opens,” he said. “I don’t want to give this false hope to these parents. …You’re helping 54 more families. You’re turning something positive into something negative.”

Miami Herald staff writers Martin Vassolo and Aaron Leibowitz contributed to this report.

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