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Working parents in McHenry County struggle to accommodate remote, hybrid learning schedules

Local agencies expand day care, support programs to fill gaps

Counselor Ellie Stolzman, 19, of McHenry helps kindergarten student Aaron Alcock with his remote learning Oct. 13 during FuntastiCamp, a day camp for parents who need child care, at Lake in the Hills Village Hall. The camp accepts children of all grades and from all districts, and registration can be completed online at www.lith.org.
Counselor Ellie Stolzman, 19, of McHenry helps kindergarten student Aaron Alcock with his remote learning Oct. 13 during FuntastiCamp, a day camp for parents who need child care, at Lake in the Hills Village Hall. The camp accepts children of all grades and from all districts, and registration can be completed online at www.lith.org.

Finding a child care option to meet the changing needs of her three children has been a struggle for Kellie Bartley of Algonquin, one many working parents have been encountering as school districts locally have begun transitioning to hybrid learning models.

Bartley has been working from home as a freelance writer but now is being asked to go into the office more frequently, making it difficult for her to be at home to help her kids – two of whom are in elementary school and the other in middle school – with their remote learning or drive them to and from school based on their different hybrid learning schedules.

“It feels like the only option I have that seems like a good option is [to] stop working and stay home with [my] children, and all of this would be fine,” Bartley said. “But then if I stop working, financially, we’re not OK and … when you try to go back into the workforce, you’re going to be up against the thousands of people who are all unemployed right now, competing for a job.”

A number of private and public child care providers are making adjustments to help parents like Bartley, including Crystal Lake-based Sage YMCA.

The YMCA runs a “remote learning camp,” which provides care to students ages 5 to 13 before, during and after school hours from 6:30 a.m. to
6 p.m., Youth Services Director Nikki Laster said. The program offers remote learning support and plenty of outside time, weather permitting.

The remote learning camp was extended into the fall after an announcement that the majority of McHenry County’s school districts would begin the year with remote learning.

The YMCA plans to continue extending it as long as there still is a need for the service, Laster said.

The YMCA also staffs a program at Prairie Grove Elementary School, where students receive care before and after school hours, which now run from 8:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. followed by an hour of remote learning, Laster said. Students can get help with their remote learning and engage in a variety of activities until their parents pick them up.

For Prairie Grove Community School District 46, pre-K through second-grade students returned to school for this hybrid learning model Wednesday, according to an announcement on the district’s website. Third and fourth graders will begin the hybrid model Oct. 26, followed by fifth through eighth graders Oct. 27.

Providing this kind of support for working parents in the school building itself is ideal because the challenge of transportation between school and supplemental programming is eliminated, Laster said.

These programs help working parents and kids alike, serving families across McHenry County, she said. The YMCA offers scholarships for families who may have difficulty affording their services.

“No one was planning for all these changes ... like needing child care for these times that their kids would normally be in school, so it definitely can be a hardship for a lot of them,” Laster said.

School districts across the county have been working with their local park districts or municipal parks and recreation departments to offer the same kind of support. This is the case for McHenry School District 15 and Cary School District 26, Laster said.

It also is the case at the Lake in the Hills Village Hall, where Huntley School District 158 and Community School District 300 students can attend FuntastiCamp.

At FuntastiCamp, students are able to complete their remote learning with help from camp counselors, many of whom are local college students, said Kim Buscemi, the village’s recreation superintendent.

FuntastiCamp also offers scholarships on a case-by-case basis and is flexible for parents who may need care only on certain days of the week, Buscemi said.

“We all do the best that we can to give grace to each other,” she said. “Having to leave children behind and having [to go] to work, I would imagine there’s some guilt in that. They may feel like they should be there helping the child, but they also have to support their family … so we just want to try to provide the parents that reassurance that their children are safe here.”

The village hall building sits directly across from Lincoln Prairie Elementary School, meaning students can be led across the parking lot to FuntastiCamp after the District 300 hybrid learning day without the need for a bus services, Buscemi said.

For students coming from other schools, the issue of transportation is a tricky one, as the village of Lake in the Hills cannot afford to take on the cost or the tactical challenge of providing transportation safely, she said.

Laster made similar remarks about the YMCA programs.

The maximum capacity of both the YMCA programs and FuntastiCamp is 30 students, and students are kept in pods of 15.

Some parents have chosen private child care providers, tutors or nannies, which sometimes offer care in smaller groups. Former teacher Kim Miller runs one of these programs out of her home in Woodstock.

On her busiest day, Miller looks after a group of nine children from Marengo, Union and Woodstock. Keeping her program small allows her to tailor the program to the needs of each individual parent and to spend a lot of quality time with the kids, she said.

Bartley still is figuring out how her family will make it work.

Her youngest child will return for a shortened school day ending at 1 p.m. come Monday, along with the rest of the district’s kindergarten through third-grade students, according to the reopening plan for District 300.

Bartley’s middle child will follow suit on Nov. 2, when fourth and fifth grades move to hybrid learning.

After the two younger children go back to school, she still will need to find child care for her 11-year-old middle school student, who, according to state statute, is too young to stay home alone during the day but is older than the students being prioritized by District 300 for a return to in-person learning.

The day care programs that offer remote learning support near Bartley also seem to focus on younger kids, putting her 11-year-old at a “neglected age,” she said.

“There are risks in all situations,” Bartley said. “I’m either taking a financial risk, or I’m taking a health risk, or I’m risking mental health or I risk being punished by law.”

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