Seats in New York City’s free child care program still not finalized

Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray welcoming Pre-K students back to school in Queens.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray welcoming Pre-K students back to school in Queens.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray welcoming Pre-K students back to school in Queens.

Seats in New York City’s free child care program still not finalized

With the rest of the city’s in-person classes starting next week, challenges remain to prepare providers.
September 23, 2020

Many of the same problems plaguing K-12 schools – reopening delays, staffing shortages and overall uncertainty – also apply to New York City’s free child care program.

Many parents reported a week before the full school reopening that they still didn’t know whether their children had received a slot in the Learning Bridges program, which provides a supervised space for students to attend remote classes. The city created the program to help parents who needed child care for their kids in 3-K through eighth grade on their remote learning days. The program was supposed to prioritize placement for foster youth, children with disabilities, children in homeless shelters and the children of essential workers.

The Learning Bridges program – which is being overseen by the New York City Education Department as well as the Department of Youth and Community Development – suffered from overstated promises from Mayor Bill de Blasio. He initially pledged that there would be 100,000 child care slots when he first announced the program. But the city has since lowered that number to about 30,000 students once all school buildings reopen next week. As of Monday, when the first round of classes opened for students with disabilities and children enrolled in 3-K and pre-K, just 3,600 seats were available in the program.

Some community organizations operating Learning Bridges sites were still in the process of finalizing the list of students they will be enrolling despite the fact that full in-person learning starts on Oct. 1. The Children’s Village received its first list of names from the Education Department on Monday, and it is still waiting on a second list, said Deborah Giordano, who serves as assistant vice president at the nonprofit and oversees the program. Commonpoint Queens started receiving the names of its students toward the end of last week, said Mitch Karpp, associate vice president of youth education services, and the organization is still waiting for additional lists as well.

Once they receive the lists, organizations must still contact the families to confirm that they will accept the spot in the Learning Bridges program, and then the parents have to send in the relevant documentation, which can also delay the process. In some cases, it seemed that parents were also committing to a slot for their child, but were still deciding whether or not to actually send them, said Mary Cheng, director of childhood development services at the Chinese-American Planning Council, which could delay the process for other parents. At the six sites the nonprofit began operating for younger students who started classes this week, each site had under 20 students attending so far.

“We’re working with Learning Bridges partners to help address their staffing and operating needs so we can provide an enriching and supportive learning environment for our students,” Sarah Casasnovas, a spokesperson for the Education Department, wrote in a statement. “These efforts include running virtual job fairs, facilitating enrollment, and expediting approvals and permits. The notification process for families began last week and will continue on a rolling basis throughout the fall as more seats are added to help support our students and their families.”

The nature of the program also created new staffing demands for some organizations. “Providers are wanting to ensure that the city supports them in staffing up very quickly, because these are programs that are coming online very quickly,” said Gregory Brender, director of children and youth services at United Neighborhood Houses, which is active on early childhood issues. The staffing process was hampered by delays in approving background checks for child care staff through the city Department of Health, which predates the coronavirus pandemic. Cheng said she hired people to fill certain roles for the program only to have them leave after a certain amount of time because they couldn’t get paid until their background check cleared.

“It’s been definitely difficult to onboard new staff at this time,” she said. “We’re kind of lucky that it’s really low enrollment. But we do know that if it goes to full capacity and everybody is in class, this will be an issue.”

This is particularly important given new constraints to ensure children at Learning Bridges sites remain isolated in pods. Students are supposed to remain in groups with their fellow classmates to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Normally when a staff member in a classroom would call out sick, Bender said, another staff member could be assigned to help in that classroom and others. But that isn’t allowed due to the structure of the groups during the pandemic, which could require new staff to be brought in.

Several nonprofits managed to offset much of that burden by shifting existing staff to work on the Learning Bridges program. Commonpoint Queens, for example, managed to pivot the work of hundreds of employees at 24 after-school programs. “The fact that it was challenging shows you how difficult it is, because we’re talking about hundreds of people, but yet we definitely have had struggles getting people,” Karpp said.

Despite the challenges, community organizations were grateful that the city was funding the program. Karpp said the costs would have amounted to a $350 per week fee for families if they had to operate a similar program without the city’s support. “The fact that Learning Bridges came in and to do this is an incredible thing for these families,” he said.

Giordano at The Children’s Village agreed, “I think that (the Department of Youth and Community Development), when they do these types of programming, as well-intentioned as they are, they have to have a very clear directive which would help with all of the agencies that are implementing the program.”

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Kay Dervishi
is a staff reporter at City & State.
20201020