Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

Students at Magnolia Elementary stand at arm’s length waiting to wash their hands after their recess break. Magnolia is one of several schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District to offer child care for families during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Students at Magnolia Elementary stand at arm’s length waiting to wash their hands after their recess break. Magnolia is one of several schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District to offer child care for families during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This fall, what passes for education will be a surreal world of inequality.

Here is one vision: “Schools” will technically be closed. And yet, some campuses may actually be open. These campuses will offer “child care” for a fee. Students who can pay will be able to socialize with peers and have an adult to supervise them in their work – much like school before coronavirus.

This is not just hypothetical. In Coronado Unified, it is the actual plan. The district wants to contract with a third party called Champions – which typically runs before- and after-school programs – to provide this on-campus child care.

New private options abound. Major child care providers like the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club and Jewish Community Center are all working to set up full-day learning camps. Sports centers, where children normally train in gymnastics and other athletics – one bills itself as “Schoolnastics” – are also setting up learning centers. Parents, too, are forming small groups of children called pods and paying for tutors to handle instruction.

School privatization – which usually refers to the outsourcing of traditional public education to charter schools – is a dirty word in many education circles. But under the coronavirus, a new kind of privatization is exploding. Suddenly, families with money will be able to send their children to school-like experiences. Others won’t. Education was already mired in disparity, from health and safety to academic outcomes. This new world of private options threatens to extend those disparities to even greater heights.

“It’s deeply disturbing,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA. “We may get back to school and find the gulf between the students who had these opportunities and those that didn’t is greater than ever before.”

The idea behind these programs is simple. School districts in San Diego, and many across the country, plan to deliver online learning in the fall. Students who go to some sort of daytime learning center will have an adult to oversee their work and help make sure they are staying caught up. In some cases, these adults will be credentialed teachers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered counties that meet a minimum threshold of new coronavirus cases – including San Diego – to keep schools closed. Child care facilities, however, are allowed to remain open.

“It is surreal,” said Greg Erickson, who runs a YMCA branch in La Mesa, of the possibility that school campuses will be open to those who can afford it. “But as an organization that’s been doing this during the pandemic thus far, we feel very confident we can do this in a way that will keep our students and staff safe and not become a bigger part of the problem.”

Over the course of the summer, the YMCA offered full day camps at its branch locations. Children were kept in small groups and required to wear masks when in close contact.

(So far, only two COVID-19 outbreaks have been traced back to child care facilities countywide.)

Now, YMCA leaders are hoping to be able to run full-day programs on the 80-plus school campuses where they are already licensed to provide before- and after-school child care. Erickson doesn’t know how much a program like that would cost yet, but he said it’s reasonable to assume it would run families anywhere from $800 to $1,000 per month.

“I don’t begrudge the parents who have the means to afford it,” said Howard. “But I do begrudge the system that allows it, knowing this will mean some kids get further ahead, while others who don’t have the means fall further behind.”

Howard has been working with church leaders in Los Angeles who want to try to create a free system of supplemental education at churches and other facilities. But ultimately Howard said he thinks school districts and governments – not enterprising philanthropists – should be doing more to level the playing field.

“Homeless students, students with special needs, language learners, foster students – these are the most vulnerable students that will fall furthest behind,” said Howard. “Districts need to play a role by prioritizing the return of those students to campus.”

San Diego schools in particular have lots of outdoor space that could safely accommodate at least some students. But so far, no local school districts have released plans that would prioritize access to physical campus for students who need it most – and can’t afford the options becoming available to affluent families.

Here’s how paying for child care typically works. Some families qualify for state money based on income. Those families might be able to put their child in a program like the YMCA’s at no cost. Sometimes, there is a co-pay, if the state subsidy doesn’t cover the full cost. And many times, families foot the whole bill.

State leaders have kicked in money to pay for child care for essential workers in recent months. But it’s unclear if more money would be available in the fall.

Other private programs do not officially qualify as child care.

San Diego Gymnastics and is planning to offer a school-like day program. It will be run by a credentialed teacher, who will guide children in their online studies. Learning groups will be contained to 10 or less students. The price for the full-day learning camp is $1,445 per month.

“I wish we didn’t have to charge, but we’ve got lawyers calling, bills piling up,” said Christina Grady, who runs San Diego Gymnastics.

It’s unclear, however, if sports centers like San Diego gymnastics will be allowed to operate full-day programs. The state health and safety code says that camps operating as unlicensed child care can only operate during the summer months or outside of school hours.

Grady confirmed San Diego Gymnastics, like other sports centers, is not licensed as a child care facility.

Pods and official child care centers also face uncertainty.

The current public health order bans at-home gatherings with people from other households. But the whole idea behind pods is to gather together a handful of children from different households to learn together.

Erickson said the YMCA needs to overcome two hurdles to get its full-day programs up and running. First, state licensing officials need to agree to expand the hours during which the program is allowed to operate on school campuses. Second, school districts need to agree to let the YMCA use the facilities.

“We know it’s a tough decision for them,” he said.

In the case of Coronado, the Champions program is only waiting to make sure the state will grant the program a license to operate all day on the district’s campuses, said Robyn Clark, who oversees all of the Champions after-school and early education programs in San Diego.

Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Office of Education, acknowledged lots of details still need to be ironed out, but said the agency supports child care on campuses in theory.

“SDCOE supports districts and schools working with community partners to provide child care and enrichment, as long as it’s done in accordance with the law governing licensing and public health orders,” she wrote.

In the absence of government intervention, said Howard, “what can and should happen is that people with means should ask themselves what role they can play in helping subsidize or support other students by providing access to these learning pods and other options.”

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.