But while the idea may sound like a godsend to working parents, it is also sparking pointed questions about equity, health risks and priorities in the 166,500-student school system.
Above all, many ask: How can schools be safe for children in child care if they are too risky for regular teaching and learning?
“It’s such a hypocrisy,” said parent Anya Pankratova. “They are saying it’s not safe for kids to be in the regular school — even if it’s just two days a week, with half the class — but the child care is safe to open in the same building.”
Pankratova is not arguing to reopen schools, she said — only that decisions be consistent and based on health data. “If you’re saying it’s not safe, then it’s not safe, whether you’re paying for it or not,” said the mother of two in Bethesda.
The issue has emerged as Montgomery continues to work out details about how to manage the school year.
With the school system’s all-virtual plan expected to last at least until Jan. 29, 17 child-care providers who had been operating in schools for years pressed the idea of melding child care with the remote instructional day.
“It seemed like a natural progression to help them through their distance learning and the other part they’re missing by not being in school: the socialization, the physical activity, the feeling like you’re a kid,” said Bob Sickels, the owner of Kids After Hours and a founding member of the recently formed Montgomery County School Age Child Care Coalition.
County officials say the school-based child-care programs are strictly regulated and would occupy just a few classrooms in any given school building, with self-contained cohorts that do not mingle. Many of the cohorts would bring together 13 children and two adults in a classroom, with dedicated restrooms and socially distant outdoor space.
“None of these child-care programs are taking over entire school buildings,” said Barbara J. Andrews, the administrator for early-childhood services in Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services. “We are talking about a few classrooms in each building. They are taking every precaution they can take.”
There are mask requirements, daily temperature checks and increased sanitizing. No school buses are used, and parents drop their children off outside school buildings.
Amanda Joseph-Little, a parent in Chevy Chase who signed her second-grader into a school-based program, said parents are agonizing about what to do as fall approaches — and need more choices, not fewer. “The more options we can provide, at a range of costs, the better,” she said.
Like so many others, she and her family have talked about safety. “It’s a risk, of course,” she said. “But we’re trying to weigh that risk against our ability to work and our child’s ability to learn and have social engagement, and her mental and emotional health as well.”
County officials say there may be a greater understanding about child care than schools because child care did not remain fully shut down amid the coronavirus crisis. About 500 child-care centers and 800 home-based family providers operate in Montgomery; about 50 percent of centers and 70 percent of family child-care homes have reopened, though enrollment is lower.
“Child care has continued throughout the pandemic in some capacity, whereas schools have not been open, so we don’t have data points to guide, to show us best practices,” Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said last week at a county briefing.
“It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison when you’re looking at child care versus school settings,” he said.
At least 16 child-care programs — of hundreds that reopened since spring — have been exposed to at least one person with a probable or confirmed coronavirus infection at some point, county officials said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that though the virus is far more prevalent and severe among adults, the incidence of infection in children across the United States is unclear because of a lack of widespread testing. Still, the number and rate of coronavirus cases in children has risen since the spring, according to the CDC.
Cynthia Simonson, the president of Montgomery’s countywide council of PTAs, said parents are confused by the duality: If it’s not safe for a first-grader to be in class, why is it safe for a first-grader to be in child-care program in a classroom?
“The whole reason for shutting down schools until January was it’s not safe,” she said. But if small groups are allowed, then parents ask about other children, too — particularly special-education students, Simonson said.
Montgomery school officials said in a letter to parents Monday that they are working with county health officials on the possibility of bringing small groups of special-education students and English language learners to campuses for in-person support in coming months.
Wendy Calhoun, a parent long involved in PTA issues, said she sympathizes with families that need child care, so her first thought after hearing about the child care was: “It’s great that they have it for people who need it.”
But a second thought followed quickly: “If they can do child care, why can’t they just do school?”
She also wondered, “How are they going to ensure that people who need the learning pods but can’t afford them are going to get them?”
Diego Uriburu, a longtime Latino community leader and co-founder of the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence in Montgomery County, voiced concern that families without resources would not have opportunities to participate.
“We are concerned about yet another inequity for Black, Brown and poor students,” he said.
Child-care providers say “distance learning hubs” are a way to meet families’ needs during the semester of remote education. Ideally, the arrangement will keep students engaged in school, child-care workers employed and child-care operations afloat financially. The 17 providers involved are either for-profit or nonprofit, Sickels said.
Costs vary, but one program’s fee is $1,275 a month for all-day care. All 17 providers accept state and county child-care vouchers that fund part or all of the cost, Sickels said.
Sickels, whose program charges $300 a week, said he expects to serve many families that are struggling financially and rely on vouchers, with programs in more than 20 schools. Of 450 students who were recently signed up, roughly one-third would be using vouchers, he said, whereas before the pandemic, 10 to 12 percent did.
Many affluent parents, he said, have created their own “pods,” banding together with like-minded families to hire tutors or other instructors to oversee remote learning.
At Montgomery’s schools, the distance learning hubs are expected to take their cue from school system schedules — with students attending Zoom classes, listening to recorded sessions and doing independent work.
“It’s going to feel a lot like a school day to them,” Sickels said. “They are going to come home and say, ‘Hey, Mom, this is what I did in school today.’ ”
Other providers said they expected the fall to make a difference for parents and children.
“They drop them off at 8:30 in the morning, pick them up at 5:30, and all of their school work will be done, and all of their homework — and they will have had some fun,” said Joe Richardson, chief executive of Bar-T, which started in Montgomery schools in 1988.
While “a lot is still up in the air,” Richardson said, he hopes to be in 35 schools come mid-September and possibly enroll about 700 children.
With two adults in the room, he said, “their job is going to be these kids’ education — making sure the children are following the curriculum and that they are safe when they are interacting with each other.”