The city’s program to provide supervised childcare for young students is receiving renewed attention now that public schools are indefinitely closed as the pandemic intensifies.
Learning Bridges is a collaboration between the city and community-based groups -- such as the Beam Center and the Kings Bay Y, both in Brooklyn -- to offer kids in 3K to 8th grade a supervised place to do their remote learning while their parents or guardians work. The goal is to ultimately have spots for 100,000 students by the end of the year, city Department of Education officials have said. The DOE has been promoting the program while the city Department of Youth & Community Development works on adminstration with community organizations.
While schools were closed Thursday because of increasing COVID-19 infection rates in the city, the Learning Bridges program will remain open, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed.
“We will provide support to families in a variety of ways. Obviously Learning Bridges, our childcare program will be open. That's on a priority basis, starting with essential workers and families in greatest need, but that will be available to help a lot of families,” de Blasio said at his press briefing Thursday.
But capacity is far below the 100,000-seat goal. As of last week, there were 270 providers operating 406 sites, with seats for 40,000 kids, DOE spokesperson Sarah Casasnovas said in an email statement. Most of those seats have already been assigned, with 39,000 families offered a Learning Bridges slot.
The DOE is trying to pair the Learning Bridges sites with nearby schools for contact-tracing purposes, though some families say the location doesn’t always work for them:
One parent, Rebecca Winkel of Bed-Stuy, said she is an essential worker as a psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx - but cannot find spots for her two daughters in part because one daughter has had seizures that would require special medicine.
“Any place that deals with children should be able to do this,” Winkel said.
The DOE acknowledged that not all the Learning Bridges providers are equipped to work with children with disabilities, and the city is trying to find solutions.
“Learning Bridges programs are serving children who are enrolled in DOE special education programs. As a child care program, Learning Bridges has more limited supports than those found in DOE schools,” said Casasnovas in a statement. "We are actively working to identify supports available for our Learning Bridges sites to ensure they can serve as many students with disabilities as possible. Programs work with families at the time of enrollment to identify the resources their child might need to attend Learning Bridges."
Back in the spring when the pandemic first shut public schools down and students switched to remote learning, the city set up Regional Enrichment Centers inside shuttered schools to help the families of essential workers.
The community groups that offer Learning Bridge programs are also calling for more support from the city now that so many families are depending on them.
“While schools are closing, the Learning Bridges sites, run by (community-based organizations), will remain open in order to provide child care for the children of essential workers and other families determined by the City to need care. However, the City’s lack of planning for this scenario did not consider that Learning Bridges do not have the capacity to serve the volume of children identified as eligible for the program by the City, and now require additional staff, expedited staff clearances, more space, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and secure funding,” said the Campaign for Children advocacy group in a statement Thursday.
“They're operating these in their own community centers. So they're definitely going to have space limitations,” said community advocate Nora Moran, who is United Neighborhood Houses' Director of Policy & Advocacy, in a phone interview.
“This is a brand new system that the city set up in a very short period of time,” Moran added. “I think a lot of really amazing work done by the community-based organizations to step up and recognize that caring for children is essential and that someone needs to be doing that work.”
Winkel sang the praises of the REC that her daughters attended in the spring, and said she hopes the Learning Bridges can operate in the same fashion.
Back then, “they just said which location do you want to go to, and then you just show up the next day,” Winkel said. “It was a very simple, straightforward process.”