Policymakers at a loss for child care solutions as Juneau schools start remote

Two boys play with toys on a table at a home. One boy is weraing a blue train shirt and is giving a thumbs up.
Siblings James Ackerman, left, and Timothy Ackerman, ages 4 and 5, work on Easter eggs at home via distance learning in the spring of 2020. Their school, Montessori Borealis, was shut down along with other public schools across the state in March of 2020 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Faces of other children on the laptop have been blurred. (Photo by Sue Ackerman)

For many parents, sending their kids to school gives them a break from child care while they’re at work.

That relief isn’t coming when school begins next Monday in Juneau because local education officials decided to keep kids at home over pandemic concerns. School officials hope to resume in-person classes gradually, but it’s unclear when.

The school district recently surveyed parents with school children. More than a third said they’re likely or highly likely to leave their kids home alone. Nearly as many said an adult in the household would quit their job to stay home.

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Some local policymakers are at their wits’ end searching for child care fixes, while some parents are getting creative.

A few weeks ago, Juneau parent Bobbie Jo Skibo started a Facebook group, Parents COVID Network: Juneau, to connect families navigating the pandemic. More than 200 people have joined.

Some of the threads in the group read like swap-meet conversations or personal ads.

For example: “I have a 7 year old and a 4 year old and am in Auke Bay. I’m open to different schedules and would like to trade days or parts of days so I can get a good chunk of work time. 3 families sounds good to me.”

It’s matchmaking, but for small COVID-19 learning bubbles and child care.

It’s the sort of creative, community solution that school officials were hoping would spring up.

They were also hoping for some formal policy solutions. During recent forums with parents, Superintendent Bridget Weiss mentioned the recommendations to come from the city’s Economic Stabilization Task Force several times.

Laura Martinson delivered those much-anticipated recommendations to the Juneau Assembly on Aug. 10. Here’s how Martinson wrapped up:

“The most important outcome from our fact-finding group has been that we really are requesting the Assembly direct city staff to come up with a strategy to approach this,” she said. “It’s becoming more and more apparent that this needs to be a full-time, coordinated position.”

Assembly members Loren Jones and Wade Bryson more or less interpreted that as, “You figure it out.” They had both served on a committee that spent months studying child care and crafting a policy to increase availability — pre-pandemic.

“And then here, we’re going to look at just telling staff to come up with a comprehensive solution to a short-term problem that’s almost impossible to fix,” Jones said.

He mentioned a child care provider subsidy the Assembly started that targeted preschool kids. When the pandemic set in, capacities had to be limited. So the Assembly beefed up those subsidies with federal CARES act relief money.

Now hundreds more elementary schoolers are in the mix because of distance learning.

“And now we think in a month and a half, we can hire somebody and stand up something that would triple or quadruple the amount of capacity we have today in order for schools to operate, and maybe for six months?” Jones continued. “It just — it does not make any sense to me to burden the staff with everything else to do that.”

Wade Bryson said there’s no model for pop-up child care that makes business sense, given the start-up costs, temporary need, health restrictions and regulatory requirements. He also described it as an “almost impossible” problem.

“What the school district said to us is, ‘We cannot safely bring large groups of students together. Go put ‘em in child care,’” Bryson said. “And now our idea is, figure out where can we put large groups of children to house them in child care because parents will need to go to work.”

Then Bryson made a point that there already are taxpayer-funded facilities specifically for kids.

“I would almost suggest that we have a whole bunch of small buildings conveniently placed around the city, and we just use the schools for child care. They’re already designed for children. They already have restrooms in ‘em. If we’re not going to put the kids into the buildings that we designed for the children, what buildings are we going to put them in?”

The rest of the Assembly was more optimistic. Over Jones’ and Bryson’s objections, the Assembly went with the task force recommendation to direct city staff to look into a comprehensive child care strategy.

City Manager Rorie Watt said if the Assembly wants to consider using school buildings for child care, it should meet with the Juneau School Board.

“There is a needle to be threaded, and I’m not underestimating the task. There’s definitely a facility problem, there’s a scale-of-number-of-kids-that-need-child-care problem,” Watt said. “And it may be that some use of school facilities is the best option, in terms of facility space. This is going to be hard all the way along.”

A joint Assembly-School Board meeting has not been scheduled.

While Assembly member Loren Jones was skeptical of figuring out a comprehensive solution, he said he was interested in a targeted approach for lower-income families.

Jeremy Hsieh

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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