By CLAIRE MITZEL, The Roanoke Times

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — In any other year, the 52 students sitting in the basement of the Kirk Family YMCA would be at school on a Monday morning in late September.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the most basic school routine to change: No public school division in the Roanoke Valley is holding in-person classes five days a week for all grades. As a result, the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia, United Way of Roanoke Valley and other local organizations and churches have partnered together to offer all day child care for school age children. A portion of the cost is being reimbursed by localities through their Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds.

Close to 200 children have been connected with day programs through United Way of Roanoke Valley’s Smart2Start application, which acts as a clearinghouse for the programs, said Vice President of Community Impact Vivien McMahan. Between 250 and 300 children remain on a waitlist, she said last week.

“We have had hundreds and hundreds of applications come through the system, which tells us what we thought: There is a huge need for child care in the area,” McMahan said. “Many of these are working families who were dependent upon their children being back in the school system.”

Over the summer, the local groups banded together with Roanoke County Public Schools to create the Roanoke County Community Day Programs Task Force. The city of Roanoke also has worked with the same nonprofits to provide care to students in the city. The city of Roanoke set aside slightly more than $2 million of its CARES Act funds for costs associated with the programs, according to City Manager Bob Cowell. Roanoke County Public Schools set aside $500,000, according to financial reports.

“At the end of the day, we can’t have a generation of kids miss a year of schooling,” said Mark Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

United Way of Roanoke Valley has connected families to providers through a single application.

The Smart2Start system opened in February as a way to connect families with early childhood care across the Roanoke Valley. Families fill out a single application, and United Way of Roanoke Valley staff called “navigators” assist families in securing care. As plans developed over the summer to provide students with all-day care at multiple locations, the application became crucial to streamline the process for families with school-age children.

“Who knew how vital this type of system would be?” McMahan asked.

Providers include the YMCA, Boys and Girls, private day care centers and churches. A pop-up site at Vinton Baptist Church, for example, hosts Roanoke County students.

Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia CEO Michelle Davis said last week that space remains at Vinton Baptist, but the Roanoke club’s Ninth Street Southeast location reached capacity before the first day. Due to physical distancing constraints, the club can hold about 70 students, half its usual capacity, Davis said.

“The hardest part about it is that we know that there are students, some of our previous students, who are not able to be with us right now because we were at our capacity,” she said. “That’s unacceptable. I just don’t have a solution right now.”

Staffing has remained an issue.

“We have people working 40, 50, 60 hours a week to keep our doors open,” Davis said.

Johnson said it’s been difficult to find applicants who have the requisite skills without further training, which has delayed the opening of additional locations. The Roanoke County task force for more than two months has encouraged job seekers to apply, even offering a $1,500 bonus.

The bonus has resulted in a boost in applications, Johnson said. But as a result, applicants are mainly applying to the Roanoke County programs and not elsewhere.

As of last week, Davis said Boys and Girls had four unfilled positions between the Roanoke and Vinton sites. Across the organization, which includes Montgomery and Franklin counties, there were 13 unfilled positions, she said.

Providing necessary documentation for financial aid also adds time to the process.

Families who make 275% of the federal poverty level qualify for funds to assist paying for child care, based on guidelines set forth by the localities, McMahan said. Families must provide documentation of their income, which adds an additional step. Navigators work with families to make sure they submit the proper documentation, McMahan said.

United Way of Roanoke Valley acts as a middleman. Providers invoice the nonprofit, which receives the CARES Act funds from the school systems and city and reimburses providers up to $21 per day per student, McMahan said.

“It’s new to everybody,” McMahan said of the process. “The patience and grace that I think we have to allow each other is critical to getting to the other side of this.”

On the morning of Sept. 21, the students at the Kirk Family YMCA were divided into several rooms based on their ages. Students sat in front of their school-issued computers and tablets with headphones, some on live calls with their teachers, others doing assigned classwork. Staff walked around the room, checking in on students and answering questions.

Alawyna Campbell, 7, twirled a small plastic propeller into the air while she talked, having finished her classwork early.

The second-grader eyed the clock above the door. Lunch was at noon, and it was 11:35 a.m. She patiently passed the time by explaining how her sparkly, sequined backpack includes a zipper for a unicorn hood.

Alawyna said she likes coming to the Y, but she misses her friends. “I have new friends now,” she said matter-of-factly. Still, she misses her “old friends.”

KJ Saint Jean, 10, said being at the Y during school hours means that his mother doesn’t “have to worry or anything.”

“I miss my friends and stuff,” he said. “I’m getting kind of use to it.”

The day programs run each weekday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. At the Y, the first half of the day is dedicated to schoolwork, and afternoons are dedicated to enrichment activities, Johnson said.

Johnson said staff created files for each student to know what time they were supposed to be logged into online classes and what they were working on. Schedules were also written on whiteboards around the rooms.

Feedback from parents and teachers about the programs has been positive, Davis said.

“It’s been really heartening for our staff to know that the hard work and effort that they’re putting in really is appreciated by the families and the students that were that we’re serving,” she said.

“We’re probably facilitating, gosh, anywhere from 30 to 40 different curricula each day, and just the fact that we’re able to help ensure that our kids are getting that academic support that they need — it’s been wonderful to know that we’re able to be there for the community,” she said.

The Roanoke Times writer Ralph Berrier Jr. contributed to this report.

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