State education officials announce guidance to use schools for childcare

NC Dept. of Public Instruction building
NC Dept. of Public Instruction building

RALEIGH — The North Carolina State Board of Education and officials from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) held a conference call on March 18 to hammer out details for reopening certain schools to serve as childcare facilities during the COVID-19 outbreak.

State Board of Education chairman Eric Davis reiterated the information from Governor Cooper’s executive orders, underscoring that school districts should be allowing employees to work remotely and still be paid. He also said that the board was looking at issues like graduation requirements, number of mandated instruction days and encouraging districts to move to work remotely “as soon as possible.”

Davis turned the meeting over to deputy superintendent David Stegall who presented a long list of updates and work currently in progress by both state officials and local community partners. Stegall is the co-chairman of a working group created by the governor to deal with education, childcare and food insecurity issues caused by statewide school closures.

DPI now has a dedicated area for remote learning information linked on its website covering topics like Instructional and leadership resources, online pedagogy, internet access, mobile devices and a frequently asked questions section.

Both the Friday Institute and MyFutureNC were mentioned as community partners assisting with various aspects of remote learning efforts. The Friday Institute is helping to connect teachers from different grades across all school districts to share resources, ideas and figure out how to get around any barriers they come across. Professional development is being “ramped up” with help from MyFutureNC to help teachers get their lessons online.

Various members of DPI have had calls with UNC-TV to work on developing teacher resources. Stegall mentioned that N.C. Teachers of the Year have already begun videoing lessons and UNC-TV will be aiding in getting that instruction out to K-12 students.

Internet access and language barriers are also being taken into considering in the planning. In was also announced during the call that the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT) is finalizing web-based tools that will help families search for free or discounted internet service providers. The tool is expected to launch sometime this week. DIT is also investigating the possibility of emergency purchasing for internet “Hot Spot” purchases as needed as well as laptops and other devices.

Stegall spoke for some time about how a team of 12 DPI employees are working to reopen some N.C. public schools during the governor’s state-mandated closure that will serve as childcare centers.

Stegall said that schools “are not childcare operators” but noted that of the roughly 4,500 childcare centers in the state, his team found that there are around 1,500 centers open, 1,300 are closed, and 1,600 did not respond to inquiries.

According to Stegall, there may not be as much of a need for childcare as originally thought, adding that the nine largest providers which provide over 30% of childcare slots in the state were reporting that they were operating with at least 1,500 empty slots.

During the call Stegall stressed that they don’t want these free school childcare centers to take money away from private providers or facilities or possibly cause some of them to shut down.

A 1-800 number for parents as an access point for reporting child care needs was supposed to go live on Wednesday.

North State Journal reached out to Stegall and DPI for clarification on using schools for childcare needs. DPI’s director of communications Graham Wilson responded and included the final guidance letter to be shared with district superintendents.

These school-based childcare centers will have a headcount ceiling and must remain below the 100 person mass gathering threshold mandated by the governor.

According to Wilson, school-based childcare centers will be staffed by teacher assistants and other appropriate school staff and/or staff provided by community partners and all staff must meet current criminal background check qualifications.

Eligible children include those who are ages five to 12. Children who are age 5 must currently in Kindergarten. 

Priority will be given to “students with parents or guardians who are first responders, hospital staff, front-line healthcare providers, nursing and adult group home staff, child care program staff, food service staff, and other working to keep our communities safe and healthy as we respond to COVID-19, as well as children who are homeless or in unstable or unsafe living arrangements.”

Meals will be provided to eligible children and Wilson indicated that the cafeteria will be required to be operational. Custodial services will also be deployed as well as school nursing staff.

“Practices to reduce COVID-19 exposure, including hand washing, frequent cleanings, social distancing practices and compliance with CDC guidance on no mass gatherings of more than 50 people,” the guidance document states.

Guidance to the district superintendents includes criteria to consider when selecting a school site, staffing requirements, food safety steps, and records for students that include immunization details.

The guidance recommends looking for schools located near hospitals and other health care facilities, with open school health centers and that have served as shelters in past emergencies. In addition, optimal schools might include those with before- and after-school program supplies and facilities and programs that are licensed by the Division of Child Development and Early Education.

Minimum site requirements include schools with emergency communications plan already in place, 25 square feet per child indoors, developmentally appropriate materials and activities, Lockable hazardous product and medication storage

The Staff/Child ratio must be 1:25 with a total of 50 children and no more than two groups per space if using gym/cafeteria/multipurpose room.

Outdoor activities are also a site requirement as well as “developmentally appropriate activities for the children and established program routine.” The guidance states that “It is important for children who have experienced a major disruption in their lives to have a sense of known routine.”