Since the moment Governor Charlie Baker ordered schools to shut down last March, the coronavirus pandemic has turned the lives of families across Massachusetts upside down. Nearly a year later, shuttered classrooms or hybrid learning schedules still leave many parents desperate for a helping hand.
Jumping in to fill that void are nonprofit organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro South. Its clubhouse in Brockton — where most students attend school remotely — holds small, in-person learning pods for 60 children a day, while also providing breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
“So many of the families we serve don’t have jobs that provide the luxury of being able to work from home,” said Monica Lombardo, vice president of the nonprofit, which offers similar programs at its clubhouse in Taunton. “For a lot of these families, forgoing a paycheck to stay home and support their child’s education isn’t an option if they’re going to keep a roof over their children’s heads and food on their plates.”
Nicole Medeiros, a certified nursing assistant who works at a nursing home, said she’s grateful she can send her 10-year-old son, Cameron, to learning pods three days a week at the Taunton clubhouse “knowing that my child is safe and learning.”
“I like that the Boys & Girls Club of Metro South has introduced this program so kids such as Cameron can have some sense of normalcy during this difficult time,” said Medeiros, who lives in Taunton. “All kids need to socialize with other kids.”
In-person programs for children are being offered throughout the region by organizations such as the Newton-based West Suburban YMCA, the Watertown Boys & Girls Club, and the YMCA of the North Shore.
Programs vary in length, some with meals included, at a cost ranging from $10 to $50 per day. Every program offers need-based assistance — funded by private and public grants — to families that qualify. Some require memberships.
For the YMCA of the North Shore, a consortium of seven Y’s serving multiple cities and towns, devising programs and schedules was an enormous undertaking.
“During the spring and summer, our school districts were tasked with planning three learning models for the fall: hybrid, in-person, and remote learning,” said Cyndi Marchand, vice president of education for the YMCA of the North Shore. “We knew our community would need us no matter which model the districts chose.”
In Haverhill, children can attend the YMCA for remote learning three days a week, and after-school programs are available on their two in-person days. For the Triton School District — Salisbury, Newbury, and Rowley — the Y offers full-day remote learning and after-school programs at Camp Cedar Mill in Rowley.
Students from the Manchester Essex Regional School District can attend the YMCA in Beverly for virtual learning days. Rockport students attend the Cape Ann Y in Gloucester for remote learning days, while Gloucester Public Schools utilize an early-release model, with students bused to the Cape Ann Y to finish their school day and participate in after-school activities.
Beverly also has an early release model, with the YMCA running extended learning and after-school programming in each school. In Salem, the Y offers after-school programs at five elementary schools. Marblehead and Swampscott districts have chosen a half-day model, and the Y offers education programs and care at the Y’s Swampscott Education Center for both districts.
“Families need quality and nurturing educational experiences while they’re working or attending school, and our most vulnerable families need consistent and supportive programs,” said Marchand. “Working with our school districts, we created wraparound educational programs to support the families with school-age children in each of our communities.”
Kaitlin McCarthy, Out-of-School Time director for the West Suburban YMCA, said her organization immediately canvassed parents to determine if they needed a place for children to participate in school when classes were remote, what days they would need care, and what they hoped their children would get out of the experience.
“Overwhelmingly, families said that yes, they needed care, and most importantly they were looking for a safe place for their child to be during the day,” said McCarthy. “Families also were hoping for their child to have peer interactions, something that many children didn’t get any of up until summer.”
The West Suburban Y expanded its out-of-school program by offering full-day sessions to complement the Newton schools’ hybrid model (students attend school twice weekly, and learn remotely three days). The K-8 program offers academic support, along with physical activity and safely distanced interactions with peers at the Y.
Key to offering in-person programs during the pandemic is ensuring that children will be safe. The Watertown Boys & Girls Club installed plexiglass barriers at the front desk and installed or upgraded air filtration systems throughout the building.
“Our safety committee has met weekly since August, drafting policies and procedures to ensure the safest possible environment for our staff, members, and visitors,” said Renee Gaudette, the Watertown club’s executive director.
The Watertown club recently increased its operation from six to 11 hours daily, after becoming a remote learning site to accommodate the town’s hybrid school model. The club is open for academics from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, for students ages 6-13.
At 3 p.m., the entire building is sanitized, reopening from 4 to 6 p.m. for teenagers. Teens receive academic support as well as traditional programming, leadership groups, STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) activities, and athletics. The club also hosts the Wavemakers Swim Team.
“It has been challenging to fund the expanded hours,” said Gaudette. “We’ve been fortunate that our community partners and supporters have stepped up to help us provide these services.”
At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro South, changes began last March. The long-running daily Kids Café healthy meals program became a “Grab & Go” weeknight dinner service just two days after the clubs temporarily closed in response to Governor Baker’s stay-at-home advisory.
“Ever since, our clubs have been adapting to continue serving youth in need, beginning with the launch of our ‘Club at Home’ virtual programming suite which provided virtual activities each weekday through the end of the school year,” said Lombardo. “As spring turned to summer, our focus turned to safely operating the summer programs at Camp Riverside in Taunton and at Camp Brookside at our Brockton Clubhouse.”
With the start of an uncertain school year, the clubs continued to adapt. “In our learning pods, youth are divided by grade level into groups of up to 10 students, with a dedicated staff assigned to each pod,” said Lombardo.
In addition, the Brockton clubhouse is “operating one of the only dedicated in-person teen programs in the city,” she said.
To accomplish all this, Lombardo said, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro South developed a comprehensive COVID-19 Prevention and Phased Reopening Plan that is now a model for other Boys & Girls Clubs nationwide.
“We needed to continue to support the most vulnerable youth and families in the communities we serve,” Lombard said, “and make sure that kids had a safe and enriching place to spend the hours they traditionally spend at school, so their parents could get back to work and they could have access to the individualized support they need to thrive in a remote learning environment.”
Globe correspondent Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.