PROVINCETOWN — Twenty-five children of working parents will be offered free child care in the Provincetown Schools gym as part of the school administration’s plan for completely remote learning when the schools open later this month.
On Aug. 28, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an executive order allowing the creation of partnerships between early education centers and schools that are doing remote learning. These partnerships are designed to help working parents and their children navigate the daunting realities of so-called virtual learning.
The policy is designed in response to concerns arising from the school committee’s vote to require at-home learning for all preschool through eighth-grade students for two weeks beginning on Sept 16. Whether to stay remote or bring students back to classrooms will be revisited every two weeks, said Eva Enos, chair of the school committee.
The plan has generated criticism primarily because the Provincetown Schools, with just 131 students from preschool through grade eight, serve many working families who cannot take time off to supervise remote learning.
For almost half the students (49 percent), English is not their first language; 35 percent are from economically disadvantaged homes, according to the state Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education.
And 62 percent of the students have what the state terms “high needs,” that is, they have a combination of economic and learning challenges.
In the neighboring Nauset district, serving Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and Brewster, high needs students will return to classes immediately in all grades. Nauset is also accepting all elementary school students in person, while the regional middle school is scheduled to begin in-person classes two days a week on Sept. 16.
Nauset Regional High School announced a change of plans on Sept. 1, however. It will be teaching all students remotely, at least to start, rather than offering a hybrid plan.
Louise Venden of the select board is among several townspeople who feel Provincetown, with a large building relative to the number of students, does not need to be as conservative as Nauset, especially given its demographics.
Many Provincetown parents in the service industries don’t get paid unless they go to work, Venden said.
Provincetown Schools Supt. Suzanne Scallion said she empathizes with working families. She had been compiling a list of child-care agencies, babysitters, and resources to pay for them, while not recommending any one agency. Parents can, she said, apply for funds to the John A. Henry Trust, which helps Provincetown Schools parents. Applications are available at the website of the Cape Cod Children’s Place.
When Baker made his announcement about partnerships, Scallion immediately assigned three of the town-funded Wee Care, infant, toddler, and preschool program staff to supervise up to 25 students in the gym. The limit of 25 is based on the state’s guidance on how many can gather in an indoor space, Scallion said.
The students will bring their portable electronic devices to school and work in the gym. They will have chances to play and interact with each other, staying 10 feet apart, Scallion said.
Based on a first round of surveys and phone calls, Scallion estimated that 13 students needed child care, and another seven emerged in follow-up phone calls. A few slots will go to children of staff who will be teaching remotely, she said. There were still spaces left as of Aug. 31, she said.
The child-care program will last as long as the remote learning model remains in place. Scallion said if the number of new Covid-19 cases remain low in this area, the school will move to a hybrid program, and then fully in person.
But some, including former Provincetown Schools Supt. Beth Singer, think the remote plan is not necessary at all, especially for the youngest students.
Singer, who lives in Wellfleet, said, “Little kids just cannot do remote learning and parents cannot be teachers. Why can’t we do something different for the youngest?”
While some of its staff will be caring for school-age children, Provincetown’s Wee Care itself — an unusual free day-care program for infants and toddlers located in a separate building from the school — will remain closed until the school building reopens.
Scallion said she is most worried about toddlers, for whom social distancing and mask-wearing will be challenging.
Singer said that makes little sense, when child-care centers are reopening all over the Cape and the nation. Cape Cod Children’s Place in Eastham began accepting a limited number of kids on Aug. 31.
About 40 percent of Provincetown’s students come through “school choice,” that is, they live in other towns, Scallion said.
The fear of losing students to districts returning to classrooms immediately, however, should not guide policy, Singer said.
“Decisions should never be made based on whether you gain or lose kids,” Singer said. “You make decisions on what’s good for kids.”
The school committee unanimously supported a fully remote start to school.
“The majority of our families are totally OK with it,” said Enos. “But there are three who did not agree. I’m really feeling good about the board’s decision.”