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Boston aims to provide child care and remote learning space for thousands of students

Kiarra Sealy (center) practiced a dance with other students at the Mattapan Teen Center. For the past few weeks, students at the center have been working on music production and social justice efforts.
Kiarra Sealy (center) practiced a dance with other students at the Mattapan Teen Center. For the past few weeks, students at the center have been working on music production and social justice efforts.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Boston Public Schools and after-school providers stepped up planning last week to create emergency learning centers where students will be able to gather in person during the fall to study.

It’s an effort that several city leaders say is long overdue — cities including New York and San Francisco operated remote learning centers throughout the spring. The initiative is also, so far, scant on details, including who will staff the centers (and whether the staff will include tutors who can help the students with their homework), the locations of the centers, how many students will be able to participate, and who will be eligible.

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“Our goal is to serve every family who wants it,” said Chris Smith, executive director of Boston After School & Beyond. But he added that programs will be limited by the need to socially distance kids across available spaces and, possibly, by funding issues.

After-school programs typically held in schools are concerned those buildings may no longer be feasible, Smith said, so they’re scrambling to find space in churches, community centers, parks, museums, summer camps — and even the Franklin Park Zoo. About 50 locations have been identified so far, he said, adding that families interested in securing spots should inquire at their schools.

In the end, organizers concede the need is likely to outpace availability.

Officials estimate that 20,000 to 25,000 of the district’s 54,000 students could need slots, said James Morton, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston and a state Board of Education member involved in the effort.

But in a typical year, the district’s 350 after-school programs serve only 12,000 to 15,000 students, Smith said. Now programs may need to reduce capacities for social distancing.

Still, the plans could mean a child-care lifeline for hundreds of low-income parents who can’t work from home and students who need quiet, Internet-connected places to focus on schoolwork.

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Lucy Perez, a recently laid-off single mother in Dorchester whose 7-year-old twins will enter second grade at Blackstone Elementary School this year, said she wishes her daughter and son could learn from home this year to protect them from the virus. But she also desperately needs to find a job before the family ends up homeless; and she has no one to watch them if she leaves.

Perez loves the idea of free remote learning centers, but has concerns about her kids being exposed to other children.

“My kids’ health is the most important thing for me,” she said in Spanish. “It’s a very difficult dilemma.”

Boston Public Schools has said it is leaning toward a hybrid model in September, which would entail most students attending school two days a week and learning remotely the other three days. But the district is also considering going fully remote, which the Boston Teachers Union has demanded, citing safety concerns.

Regardless of the district’s ultimate decision, remote learning centers would give the city’s neediest students a safe, supervised place to learn, socialize, and be active, said Morton.

“We’ve got a yeoman’s task ahead of us, but the Y and many other youth services organizations in the city are determined to figure it out,” Morton said.

The effort desperately needs funding for protective equipment, transportation, locations, staffing, and supplies, Morton said. He hoped funding would arrive from philanthropists or the school district, city, or state governments, but he hadn’t heard of any sources yet.

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The Boston effort comes after similar programs were announced in other places, including Los Angeles, Orlando, Indianapolis, and the Raleigh, N.C. area. New York City is planning child care for 100,000 students when schools partially reopen. San Francisco will offer “community learning hubs” for up to 6,000 children with the most needs, including those living in poverty, experiencing homelessness, and learning English.

These efforts could have a profound impact on narrowing the growing racial and economic educational disparities, said Robin Lake, director of Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization. She said the pandemic has exacerbated those gaps, as many affluent families have hired tutors, formed tiny “learning pods,” or enrolled in private schools to provide socialization and enhanced learning. But all kids deserve that, Lake said.

Programs offering disadvantaged children quiet study spaces and opportunities to see other children help, she said, but “the real untapped opportunity is to provide some learning support” through tutoring. And it’s unclear so far the extent to which that will be part of the Boston initiative.

Mattapan Records members (from left) Peterly Durosca, Eric Hines, and Jahmel Axell practiced at the Mattapan Teen Center.
Mattapan Records members (from left) Peterly Durosca, Eric Hines, and Jahmel Axell practiced at the Mattapan Teen Center.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Several Boston city councilors have said the move to create the remote-learning centers is long overdue. Councilor Andrea Campbell said she was frustrated by Boston Public Schools’ delay in deciding whether schools will reopen partially or remain shuttered during the fall, as families’ plans require that information. She said she spoke to several nonprofits that want to support students in remote learning, but the city hasn’t given them an opportunity to help.

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“The partners are ready for us to give them a call to make this happen,” Campbell said. “The district and the administration are dragging their feet.”

So far, the city has offered little information on the learning centers. Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office told the Globe the city was working with BPS and Boston After School & Beyond on the effort, but wouldn’t provide any details. In a media briefing this month, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the plans for daytime centers were “evolving.”

“I’ve always said this is going to be an all-hands-on-deck,” she said. “We are absolutely going to need our partners, especially the three days that children are in remote learning, because parents do need to go to work and we know that that’s a reality.”

Though the pandemic presents a huge logistical challenge in keeping kids safe, many Boston nonprofits operated in-person summer programs and feel safety is possible.

The YMCA operated 12 emergency child-care centers for essential workers’ families, Morton said, and only one out of 1,000 children ever tested positive for COVID. Two staffers also tested positive.

To minimize the number of people that kids would come into contact with, organizers want to keep them in small groups, he said. Morton said the YMCA programs would offer tutors, as well.

Dance instructor Tia Hines led a dance with students at the Mattapan Teen Center.
Dance instructor Tia Hines led a dance with students at the Mattapan Teen Center.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

At Mattapan’s Boys & Girls Club, the Mattapan Teen Center, usually open after 1 p.m., is interested in offering its participants a place to learn remotely during the school day, but it’s unclear how many it could serve. The center typically serves 60 to 75 teenagers who play and record music, learn job skills, and engage in social-justice activism. But this summer, the program had to reduce its in-person capacity to around 25.

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“We’re thinking about if we have the capacity to help families so their kids aren’t at home and stuck with other responsibilities and they can be in a place where they can focus,” said co-director Rick Aggeler. Now, “the teens are just happy to be outside the house and doing something constructive.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.