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Upper Valley parents scrambling for off-campus schooling, supervision

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/15/2020 9:42:40 PM
Modified: 8/15/2020 9:42:38 PM

LEBANON — Last spring, after schools closed for in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lebanon parent Jared Rhoads performed the juggling act that became familiar to many parents in the Upper Valley and across the country.

Rhoads, a health policy researcher who teaches at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and also works two other jobs from home, would begin his days making breakfast for his son, Cooper, then a third-grader at Hanover Street School. After breakfast, Rhoads would dart to his basement office to work for a few hours while Cooper did some worksheets and read books.

They’d meet up again at lunchtime, when Rhoads would fix sandwiches and do a quick math lesson on the family’s whiteboard before heading back to the basement, leaving his son to his own devices for a few more hours. When he could, Rhoads would end work early in the afternoon and then pick it back up after bedtime. But working at 2 a.m. and on weekends took a toll.

“It’s terrible,” Rhoads said. It’s “not the healthy option for anyone.”

Schools around the region have announced various plans for the fall, including remote, in-person and hybrid learning models, but warn that plans are subject to change as the pandemic persists. That leaves families with school-aged children like the Rhoadses to sort out how best to support their children’s learning, especially as many are called back to work.

Aiming to fill the gap, some businesses and child care providers are offering supervised places for children to do their schoolwork remotely — for a cost. In other cases, families are withdrawing their children from school altogether, in favor of home schooling. Some like the Rhoadses are looking for other families to share child care during remote learning.

The result is a hodgepodge of plans that reflects the uncertainty of the pandemic, its toll on working families and the exacerbation of pre-existing disparities.

Stephanie Slayton, the executive director of the TLC Family Center in Claremont, said she’s concerned that higher-income families and those with parents who’ve obtained a higher degree of education themselves will have more options in how they choose to educate their children this fall. Slayton noted that many of the families her organization supports lack high-speed internet connections and the devices they need to access remote learning.

All this could leave “only students of one socioeconomic class in the classroom,” she said, which is a situation public schools have “worked so hard to avoid.”

She also noted that families with children with special needs may be more likely to feel that their children need to attend school in person to access their education.

It’s “almost like you don’t have a choice in some cases,” Slayton said.

Organizations step up

Inspired by the frustration many children and families in the Windsor Central Supervisory Union experienced after schools closed for in-person learning last March, a group of parents and educators in Woodstock is working to establish a new nonprofit that will offer supervision for children in the area as they learn remotely this fall.

The Community Campus is slated to operate in the top two floors of the building that is home to the Rainbow Playschool on North Barnard Road. There, learning coaches will help children in kindergarten through sixth grade with their remote academic work and offer other activities such as place-based learning and mindfulness exercises. Schools in the supervisory union, which includes the Upper Valley towns of Barnard, Bridgewater, Pomfret and Woodstock, will be open for a hybrid model with a mix of in-person and remote learning this fall.

“Kids function best when they know what they’re going to do (and they) see other kids doing the same things that they’re doing,” said Tesha Buss, the business director for The Community Campus.

Buss, whose 6-year-old daughter, Izabella Skuro, is going into first grade at Woodstock Elementary School, said both she and Izabella struggled with remote learning last spring. She hopes The Community Campus provides structure that they lacked.

The program, which offers three different weekly schedule options ranging from one day a week to three to match the days different students in the supervisory union will be learning remotely, will cost $50 per day, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and $20 per day for after-school care.

The program is working to become licensed with the state so that families can access state subsidies to attend, Buss said. Families that earn slightly too much to qualify for the state subsidy are encouraged to apply for support for this unexpected expense from the Woodstock Area Relief Fund.

The Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction also is enrolling for a supervised remote learning program this fall. The UVAC program is offering to supervise children in third through fifth grades in small groups of up to 10 using COVID-19 safety protocols, including mask-wearing and having the children work at individual stations separated by plexiglass.

“We felt that there was a need,” said Joe Major, UVAC’s executive director. “We wanted to fill that need.”

In between lessons, Major said the students will be able to take advantage of UVAC’s facilities for physical activities, including swimming lessons.

The program requires that students attend five full days each week from 7:45 a.m. to 3:50 p.m., in order to limit the risk of transmitting the virus. It costs $300 per week. If parents opt for $20 per day for after care, which runs from 3:50 p.m. to 5:45 p.m., they would pay $1,600 every four weeks.

Major said he understands the difficult decisions families are facing in deciding whether to send their children to school, which might put them at risk of contracting COVID-19, or to have them stay home, which might put them at risk of falling behind in their academic work.

The UVAC program aims “to satisfy both those things,” he said.

Some child care providers around the Upper Valley have or are in the process of changing their licenses to be able to provide care for school-aged children.

Among them are FitKids Childcare at River Valley Club in Lebanon, which has created a new program, FitKids Academy, aimed at supervising and providing structure to the days of children who will be learning remotely this fall.

The FitKids program is aimed at children in kindergarten through third grade. FitKids staff will supervise the children’s remote learning and engage them in other activities such as CrossFit and tennis, said Lisa Bozogan, FitKids’ director.

While Bozogan said the schools are doing the best they can to balance the children’s needs with safety precautions necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she said programs like FitKids Academy are necessary to fill the gap between what children can learn remotely and what they need for in-person care while their parents work.

“It’s a crisis, I think,” she said.

The FitKids program will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and will cost $2,050 per month. There is a 15% discount for siblings. Like UVAC, FitKids also is requiring that children enroll full-time in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

At-home alternatives

Frustrated with the options being offered by school districts, some parents are opting for home schooling.

Among them are White River Junction parent Michelle Scott, whose two children, first-grader Johnathan and fourth-grader Katharine, will be home-schooled this year. Scott, who is immunocompromised, said it didn’t feel safe to send them back to in-person classes at the Ottauquechee School this year, and they didn’t have a good experience with remote learning in the spring. She said the extra screen time gave the kids headaches and they were overstimulated, which led to behavioral problems.

This year, Scott, who previously worked as a substitute teacher at her children’s school, plans to help her kids learn using workbooks, online programs and “a lot of hands-on and activities, so it doesn’t feel like ‘schoolwork,’ ” she said.

Next year, though, she said her kids both hope to return to school.

“They enjoyed their school, friends, teachers and the extracurricular activities that were offered,” she said.

Scott is not alone in turning to home schooling this year. Though numbers of new applications for home-schoolers in the Twin States weren’t readily available, Michelle Levell, director and co-founder of Auburn, N.H.-based advocacy group Granite State Home Educators, said her phone has been ringing “off the hook” as families explore their options for the coming year.

Levell said that helping parents to find the right curriculum for their children during this time of great uncertainty has been empowering for some.

“They have a lot of choices,” she said. “This is actually a silver lining during this crazy COVID time. Parents are having this great opportunity.”

Parents consider ‘learning pods’

In Lebanon, Rhoads and his wife, Becky, who works full-time in person as the assistant director of the White River Junction VA Medical Center, are trying to sort out how to supervise remote learning three days a week for both their son and now their daughter, Natalie, who is set to start kindergarten this fall. She was able to attend an in-person preschool through the spring.

Rhoads, who was among those who signed a recent petition asking the Lebanon School Board to reconsider its hybrid model and instead offer full-time in-person classes, recently took to Facebook in hopes of finding other families in the same boat to share the task of supervising the children on their remote learning days.

He’s had interest from eight or nine other families in forming some sort of a learning pod, which he noted is kind of a “desperation move” and not ideal for reducing the risk of transmitting the virus.

But, between the children’s varied ages and the parents’ varied work schedules, “nothing’s matching up,” he said. “At least not perfectly.”

The Rhoadses both need to keep working, and they want their kids to have the chance to interact with their teachers and classmates in person as much as possible and the cost of the FitKids and UVAC programs for two kids would be too much for them. But Rhoads said he’s grateful to the organizations that are offering creative care options during this time.

It’s “not going to work for everyone,” he said. “Not for us (but) for some people that will be the solution.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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