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With So Many Kansas City Area School Buildings Closed, Classrooms Are Springing Up In Unlikely Places

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City will be providing child care for families when schools buildings are closed. It's part of a community initiative to provide support for online learning while parents are at work.

Just because students are starting the semester virtually doesn’t mean they’re learning from home.

With school buildings in many Kansas City area districts closed, some kids will be logging in from camps, churches and gyms next week.

That's because working parents still need child care.

“We are very worried about children, particularly from our lower-income families in the city,” said Mike English, director of Turn the Page KC, a literacy advocacy organization that’s helping coordinate child care for families in the Kansas City, Center and Hickman Mills school districts, all of which are starting remotely. “While it’s understandable that schools are opening up virtually, elementary school children really need an adult present to facilitate distance learning.”

In Missouri, half of all students are enrolled in districts that are either fully remote or blending in-person and online instruction, usually on alternating days. Distance learning is more common in schools in and around Kansas City and St. Louis, cities that have been hit harder by the coronavirus than most rural communities.

Kansas’ five largest school districts, four of which are in the Kansas City area, will start the school year with most students learning virtually, though Wichita, Olathe and Blue Valley plan to bring back younger students.

Falling behind

English said while he’s seen “complex, quality” plans for distance learning, kids still need an adult to guide them. To that end, Turn the Page KC is trying to raise $2 million to pay for child care for 1,000 elementary school students during the pandemic. English estimates the organization is about halfway there, and providers like the Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, Upper Room and Campfire are already enrolling students.

“Some of the partnerships that we’re working on do include school buildings, specifically in the Center School District,” English said. “We’re partnering with Kansas City Parks and Recreation to use community centers, and we’ve also had churches offer their space up.”

Child literacy advocates like English often say that until third grade, kids are learning to read, but after third grade, kids are reading to learn. The number of third graders in Kansas City, Missouri, meeting grade-level of expectations has improved since 2011, but less than half of all students are reading proficiently at the end of third grade.

English is worried that the pandemic will undo the progress that’s been made over the last decade.

“It’s really important to have places for kids that are conducive to learning,” he said. “We’re really concerned that opening up virtually will continue to set back students. ... During the final part of last school year, then during the summer, lots of children lost out on important learning time.”

Extra recess

Erica Newson is the kids manager at Life Time Overland Park, a fitness center that regularly hosts camps and birthday parties.

Starting next week, though, Newson’s team will be helping about 60 kids with their schoolwork. Parents can enroll their kids in child care for all or part of the day, depending on how much help they need, and when kids aren’t logged in, they’ll be able to run around and play.

“We’ll have gym games, rock climbing. We have a whole gym that we can take up so we can socially distance and follow all the guidelines,” Newson said, adding it’s a great option for families looking for stimulation and socialization with other kids. “We’ll keep them really active.”

Life Time Fitness
Life Time Fitness in Overland Park is providing child care for families during virtual learning for about $200 a week. The program includes plenty of gym time and access to tutors.

Newson is confident that Life Time can keep kids socially distanced and safe because there weren’t any cases at the camps the gym operated over the summer.

“We have poly dots down on the floor or carpet squares. There are a lot of visual cues about where they can go, that they’re far enough away from friends. We do have to have a lot of conversations, ‘Oh, we can’t hug friends, but we can come up with fun dances to do,’” Newson said.

A week of full-time care at Life Time costs about $200. That’s in line with what Kansas City parents pay, on average, for full-day pre-K for 4-year-olds.

Safety measures

Most pediatricians agree that kids younger than 10 don’t spread the coronavirus as effectively as older children and adults. That’s why some districts are bringing back elementary schoolers but not middle or high school students.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City is implementing safety protocols at all its child care sites, including wearing masks, washing hands and practicing social distancing.

In Facebook groups advocating to reopen schools, parents have questioned why it’s safe for kids to go somewhere for child care but not school.

Tina Tan, a pediatric infectious disease expert who worked with NPR to develop a guide on safe school re-entry, said that child care centers need to follow all the same protocols as schools.

“There should be universal masking. We know that kids two years of age and older can wear masks. There has to be physical or social distancing. There has to be good hand hygiene,” she told KCUR.

As much as possible, kids should be kept in the same small group with their peers, Tan said. She advised against letting them run and play in a gym, especially with classmates outside of that group. Physical activity, she said, is always safest outside, where it’s easier to practice social distancing.

Smaller classes

To be clear, schools that are providing child care are bringing back far fewer students than they would have if they’d reopened. Shawnee Mission, which enrolls more than 27,000 students, will only have about 160 students in buildings when the school year starts remotely next week, all of whom are the children of employees.

“Our teachers are doing the important work of taking care of the children of our community,” said Leigh Anne Neal, the district’s chief of early childhood education, on the decision to provide child care for employees during the pandemic. “The district recognizes that many of them are trying to balance their professional roles along with learning support for their own families.”

Academy for Integrated Arts, a charter school in Kansas City that serves 265 students, is starting the school year virtually. About 20 students will still come to school for services they can’t get online, executive director Tricia DeGraff said.

“We set up what we call an extenuating circumstances program,” DeGraff said. “We have started really, really small since the mayor recommended that schools not bring children in until after Labor Day due to the situation right now with rising cases. But we have families that just don’t have other options.”

Academy for Integrated Arts
All students at the Academy for Integrated Arts, a Kansas City charter school, received supply kits in the spring to help with online learning. New students will get their welcome kit in the next few weeks.

DeGraff said the vast majority of students coming into the school right now have a special education plan. She said she can’t wait to have everyone back in the building, but that can’t happen until cases decline. So right now, she’s focused on getting kids everything they need to learn at home, from Chromebooks to art supplies for project-based learning.

Back to school

Other charter schools in Kansas City have decided to bring back students for in-person learning. Kevin Foster, the executive director of Genesis, said that’s possible because his school is so small. The school plans to serve about 210 students this year, or 80% of its usual enrollment.

“When we tried to figure out what we were doing in the fall, we really felt we needed to be able to provide high-quality reading instruction,” Foster said. “There’s not a really good way to do that without some type of partner on the other end of the line remotely.”

Foster didn’t think a lot of families would be able to provide the kind of support their kids in virtual classrooms. He decided to focus on bringing back returning students for in-person learning.

“I’m extremely proud of our staff and their commitment to kids,” Foster said. “We decided if it’s safe for day care or other providers to be dealing with our students, then we have an obligation to learn those protocols and serve our own students.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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