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Learning hubs emerge as child care needs increase

While public school-aged children are currently learning remotely in Watauga, many businesses, churches and individuals are collaborating to help bridge a child care gap that has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watauga Children’s Council Associate Director Mary Scott said her agency has experienced an uptick in calls about child care openings and has noticed social media posts from parents wanting to form learning pods. The Children’s Council has also observed advertisements from businesses and churches who offered their spaces to individuals and to groups.

“Families are grappling with this issue,” said Elisha Childers, the Children’s Council executive director. “Many are struggling to juggle the demands of work — even if they are working from home right now — and supporting their child’s virtual education.”

Noticing a gap in child care during this time, representatives of the faith community, Watauga County Schools, the Children’s Council and the Watauga Department of Social Services started discussing ways to help during an Aug. 27 meeting of the Faith Community/School Collaborative. Denise Presnell, a social worker at Hardin Park School, said that community groups are trying to meet the needs of children and families.

“I’ve always felt like we’ve got a little army of people trying to make sure kids and families are taken care of,” Presnell said. “It’s a wonderful thing to be part of.”

Elise Sigmon is the co-owner of The Big Blue Center for Expressive Arts, and has opened up her studio doors as a learning hub for students during the school day with help from tutors. As a mother of five, Sigmon said she understands how difficult it can be to try to help students during remote learning, and she wanted to help other parents. A month after having the idea, Sigmon jumped into starting a learning hub.

The Big Blue operates as a learning hub from 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; Wednesdays students can attend 8 a.m.-noon. Sigmon said her studio offers two large rooms for her current enrollment of approximately 30 children, with one tutor assigned to every four children or so. She said some students attend the learning hub every day, while others may come one day a week.

It’s $30 for children to stay until noon, and an additional $15 for children to stay until 2:30 p.m. The money helps to pay the tutors as well as costs for the building, Sigmon said. She added that she’s willing to work with families who may not be able to afford the cost. Children wear masks and “sneeze guards” are offered between tables where students face each other, she said. She also brought toys from home that kids can play with that are also easy to sanitize, like blocks and Legos.

Rev. Mitchel Marlowe, the pastor at Advent Christian Church, said the church’s vision committee has been working on how to minister more effectively to the community — especially during the pandemic. A wife of one of the vision committee members is a teacher, and Marlowe said she helped the group recognize local child care needs as students are remote learning. Witnessing parents struggling as well as child care falling to that of grandparents, aunts or uncles, Marlowe said his church wants to be able to minister to that need.

The church is searching for a part-time director to oversee a learning hub at the church. Marlowe said church leaders are hopeful that the operation would be offered two or three days a week from around 7:45 a.m.-2:45 p.m. In order to follow social distancing guidelines, the church may be able to take on 15 or so children depending on the amount of volunteer help, he said. Resumes for the director position can be sent to mitchmar1@gmail.com. Marlowe can be contacted at (828) 963-3230.

Marlowe said the church wants to be good stewards of the space that Christ has provided them, and wants to come alongside the Watauga County Schools system and help any way they can.

Sigmon said operating the learning hub at her studio has been a challenge and a process of trial and error. A hurdle the studio has had to overcome is managing the schedules of all of the students — such as when to help a student log on to a Google Meet with their teacher — as the children are in different classes and have different class requirements.

“That has been hard,” Sigmon said. “We’ve done our best; we’re getting better at it. We’re all learning together.”

Presnell said other churches are in various stages of operating or starting a learning hub; The Rock church also has a learning hub. She added that planning to open a child care center or learning hub is more complicated than one might think.

“You don’t just open up your gym doors and say, ‘Everybody come on in,’” Presnell said. “There’s a lot of things that go into consideration with those.”

Child care regulations, laws

According to the Children’s Council, the N.C. General Assembly passed legislation on Sept. 3 to allow community organizations to start operating programs for school-aged children to respond to the need for care. While this is good news, Scott said parents may want to consider their options when it comes to these types of programs. The legislature temporarily loosened licensing regulations — which included safety regulations like not requiring background checks or CPR/First Aid training, according to the Children’s Council.

“While these measures allow care to become available more quickly, it is important that parents know to really pay attention to who will be taking care of their child and to ask questions to determine the overall safety of the program,” Scott said.

According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, its Division of Child Development and Early Education brought a rule-change recommendation to the Child Care Commission on Aug. 5 to allow public schools to enter into contractual agreements with community-based organizations to establish remote learning facilities for school-age children that would meet the definition of public schools under NCGS 110-86(2).

This means that there is an option for schools to contract with churches and other local businesses as an extension of the public school system for remote learning sites, according to the Children’s Council. Marlowe said his church intends to contract with the school system after filling its learning hub director position.

The Children’s Council recognized that learning pods and other recreational programs can be a great option for parents who have to work while offering structured learning support and physical and social activities for children. But the agency did encourage those looking for care to look to licensed care first, as many early learning facilities and family child care homes that are licensed by the state have space available to keep school-age children. The agency stated licensed care providers must go through background checks, first aid and CPR training as well as follow rigorous health, safety and sanitation requirements. To inquire about licensed care openings, contact 1 (888) 600-1685.

According to North Carolina General Statute 110-86(2) and (3), operating a child care facility without being licensed is a felony punishable by a fine, imprisonment or both. Child care is defined in the statute as a program or arrangement where “three or more children less than 13 years old, who do not reside where the care is provided, receive care on a regular basis of at least once per week for more than four hours but less than 24 hours per day from persons other than their guardians or full-time custodians, or from persons not related to them by birth, marriage or adoption.”

North Carolina has a process for becoming licensed to care for more than two children in a home who are not related to the person wanting to provide the temporary care. For more information on how to become licensed, visit www.thechildrenscouncil.org/caring-for-children-resource-page.html.

Presnell said it was discussed during the Aug. 27 meeting that area social workers and case managers are concerned about children potentially being left home alone while parents go to work. The Children’s Council stated that it does not make a recommendation on what age a child can be left home alone. North Carolina G.S. 14-318 states that it is a Class 1 misdemeanor to leave a child under the age of 8 unsupervised. The Children’s Council stated that licensed, school-aged child care is provided for children through age 12.

“At that point, the development and maturity of a child would need to be considered for leaving (them) unsupervised for any period of time,” Childers said. “It is commonly known that young teenagers are at an increased risk of risky youth behaviors when left unsupervised for long periods of time.”

State COVID-19 relief bill to provide stimulus funds to parents

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper signed the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 into law on Friday, Sept. 3, granting direct payments of $335 to North Carolina families with school-aged children.

Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate approved the bipartisan measure over the past week, with the intention of benefiting families with school-aged children by providing direct economic relief in an attempt to offset the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also included in the bill is a temporary $50 weekly increase in unemployment benefits and additional funds for testing, tracing and personal protective equipment. The $335 in direct payments will be distributed by Dec. 15, while the weekly increase in unemployment benefits will last until the end of the year.

The bill will allocate the remaining $1.1 billion in funds that the state had remaining from the funding it received through the CARES Act from Washington earlier this year.

When the state received the money through the CARES Act, Sen. Warren Daniel said that the state was hoping it would be able to use the funds for regular budget expenses and operations.

“When it was passed, there were restrictions that had to be COVID-related. We thought they would come back and loosen the restrictions, but they haven’t yet. (The money) had to be spent by Dec. 31, so we went back to spend the rest of it on COVID-related items,” Daniel said.

Daniel hopes that the payments will help ease some of the burden that local families have faced during the economic downturn and assist children who have switched to online learning.

“Parents are having more problems with child care issues and other types of issues when kids are home. It’s sort of a supplement on the $1,200 payment that the federal government already sent out,” Daniel said.

The bill will also provide $20 million in funding to YMCAs across the state, which should include the Williams YMCA in Linville. It is possible that the money may be able to go toward the YMCA’s afterschool program. W.A.M.Y. Community Action and the Williams YMCA did not receive their state grants for afterschool programs this year.

Additionally, the bill includes a provision that will hold school systems harmless if they experience a loss in enrollment, which in turn affects the amount of money they receive from the state. School systems’ budgets will not be affected if students choose to pursue other educational pathways such as homeschooling.

Highlights of the state spending package include:

  • $35 million for childcare assistance
  • $75 million for PPE
  • $10 million for internet connectivity for students
  • $30 million for the GREAT Program to improve rural broadband
  • $6.5 million to eliminate the waitlist for children with disabilities to access educational opportunities
  • $34 million for testing and tracing
  • A hold harmless provision for school districts that see declining enrollment
  • $20 million for COVID treatment for the uninsured
  • $45 million for a small business grant program

The full text of the ratified HB1105 can be read by clicking to www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2019/Bills/House/PDF/H1105v6.pdf.

Watauga lifts restrictions for playgrounds, outdoor courts, shelters, short-term rentals

BOONE — A modification to the county’s state of emergency — approved by the Watauga County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 1 — lifts the restriction for playgrounds, outdoor courts, picnic shelters and short-term rentals effective at 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 4.

The modification was made in order to align with Gov. Roy Cooper’s phased plan for easing restrictions. Short-term rentals will be able to operate at 100 percent capacity.

“The purpose of this update is to reflect the changes to the governor’s three-phase plan and align our plan in response to concerns from our citizens, the business community and reflect the public health guidance from AppHealthCare,” stated commissioners Chairman John Welch. “Watauga County Commissioners recognize the need to strike a balance between keeping our citizens and visitors safe and healthy and maintaining a vibrant economy. We will continue to prioritize health and safety and do our part to slow the spread of this virus in our community.”

As North Carolina and Watauga County enters Phase 2.5 of the governor’s reopening plan, AppHealthCare stated that it encourages residents and visitors to follow public health guidance to protect themselves and the community.

How to Protect Yourself and Others

AppHealthCare stated there are actions community members can take to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the area. The agency asks community members to “Show Your Love” by following the 3Ws when you leaving home — wearing a cloth face covering, washing one’s hands and waiting 6 feet from others.

  • Wear a cloth face covering over the nose and mouth
  • Wash hands often or use hand sanitizer
  • Wait at least 6 feet from others
  • Stay home when sick or may have been exposed to COVID-19
  • Keep distance from others who are sick
  • Avoid touching one’s face
  • Avoid crowded areas
  • Clean and disinfect high touch surfaces in common areas like doorknobs, remotes, light switches, tables and handles.

For questions about COVID-19, contact the AppHealthCare COVID-19 Call Center at (828) 795-1970 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. Questions can also be emailed to preparedness@apphealth.com. For more information related to COVID-19, including local data, visit AppHealthCare’s website at www.apphealthcare.com.