In a room with a dozen children from three school districts, some stared at a Chromebook laptop for a reading assignment, some chatted with peers and teachers on the other side of a screen, some ate lunch and some danced along to music on their headphones.
It’s a remote learning day at Pattycake Playhouse Early Childhood Learning Center in Newburgh.
As many districts started the school year with remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some child care centers are adapting to facilitate virtual learning. They have revamped classrooms, purchased new furniture, upgraded broadband plans and hired additional staff.
School-age children go back to preschools and spend an entire remote learning day with teachers and friends they have known since they were infants, all while six feet apart.
Michelle Pagano, director of Pattycake Playhouse, said teachers are still trying to figure out what is going to work best for students who are from various schools with different schedules and learning platforms.
“We’re in surviving mode right now. I don’t feel like we’re offering the children what they need because we have to figure out logistics first,” said Pagano, whose 5-year-old had a meltdown Wednesday during a remote learning session. “He had his head on the desk saying ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this.'”
Peggy Fuentes, owner of On My Way Child Care Center in Middletown, said although teachers had prepared a lot during the summer, ranging from requesting schedules for individuals to setting up information for learning platforms, it is a learning experience for everyone.
Linda Martini, director of the Child Care Council of Orange County, said there are about 17 remote learning programs established throughout the county.
“Everybody is doing different things depending on their space and financial situation,” Martini said. “It’s all an experiment right now to see what will work and what won’t.”
At Fuentes’ center, 36 students in the program are divided into four groups with a teacher and teaching assistant. The K-5 students come from eight school districts. Each student’s schedule is written on a Post-it Note, and teachers keep checking them to make sure everyone is situated for online class on time.
“We really try to do as much preparation as we can to have all the back-pocket information to help the children get on. It has been quite a learning experience for all of us. It’s obviously different for my teachers and district teachers to be on the screen and work with the children,” Fuentes said. “It’s a lot.”
But the educators say they felt it was rewarding to see the children excited and eager to learn.
Pagano hopes some children will become more independent after going through the remote learning sessions repeatedly. Also, as some children go back to school part-time, she said, hopefully, the class size will get smaller, which would bring more individualized attention to students.
“We are all looking for some sense of normalcy because we know this is not going to be a long-term solution and the kids are not getting what they need,” Pagano said. “There are all types of learners. Not everyone is an auditory learner, so sitting and listening to the computer all day is only going to meet the needs of so many children.”
Local child care centers struggled with low enrollment and layoffs at the very beginning of the pandemic. As parents gradually returned to work and school districts started remote learning, many centers reported a high demand for child care and remote learning programs.
“Right now, unfortunately, I spent a lot of time every day calling clients or prospective clients back saying ‘I’m sorry, I’ll put you on a waiting list.’ I can probably have two more buildings to fill them at this point,” said Fuentes.
Currently, all programs at Fuentes’ center are full. She has all existing staff back and has hired several new staff members.
However, child care centers are still grappling with high operating expenses, including PPE cost and extra staff to accommodate remote learners.
“I don’t think the programs are making any money right now. It'll probably break even in terms of tuition and payroll,” Pagano said. The ratio of teachers to students for remote learning programs is two to three times higher than traditional before- and after-school programs.
With nearly $100 million in federal CARES Act funding for child care providers and parents statewide since March, Martini said the fund has helped many centers reopen and that hopefully all this money will bring the industry to a better place.
“Funding has to come in to keep the local educational community going. Right now it’s great that we are on the waiting list, but we are still not running on a full capacity and the operating expenses are really through the roof," Fuentes said.
"That is the scary part from a business perspective. We just made a conscious decision to put our heads down and not to do the business sense but the right thing to the community. But at some point there is going to be a breaking point.”