Before the pandemic, KIDS CO-OP offered Lehigh Valley kids gymnastics and tumbling classes as after-school and evening activities.
It had a preschool day program, and just last year began offering classes for homeschooled students, similar to traditional school gym classes.
Now, the Palmer Township business is hosting students from different school districts during what would be the kids’ usual school day as part of a new “pod” program.
The program offers parents a new child care option that has been created during the COVID-19 pandemic: the need for someone to supervise a kid and handle virtual school lessons during what used to be time in a classroom.
“The COVID crisis has been a burden on everyone, but it continues to be an especially heavy one for Pennsylvania’s working families, especially those with children,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Human Services Teresa Miller said this week. “We are simultaneously working professionals, moms and dads, teachers, child care providers, meal preppers and technology troubleshooters. As this crisis drags on, the lines between school, home and work are getting blurrier and blurrier. The only constant during this crisis has been uncertainty.”
That uncertainty has included when children would be in school this fall. As districts decided on virtual learning options, and some changed plans within the last month to include remote learning, parents were left searching for child care for kids during what used to be school hours.
“What we don’t want are parents quitting their jobs to stay home with their school-age children,” Miller said.
The department defines learning pods as groups where families take turns supervising small groups of kids as they learn remotely or are taught by a hired teacher.
Pods, which don’t need to be licensed, are groups of no more than 12 kids of the same age that are watched by a shared parent or guardian, which is key, Miller said.
“If a parent leaves the children with a non-parent, such as a babysitter or a tutor, then we veer to the world of traditional childcare or even a school,” Miller said.
KIDS CO-OP offers a combination of help with virtual learning and activities, which the department calls non-licensed part-day school programs.
Deb Ross, the business’ office manager, said the it announced the idea in August.
The small, family-run business has operated for more than 20 years, first in Bethlehem and then moving five years ago to the Palmer Township location.
This is the first week of the new pod program.
Ross said the students come in and do their virtual school work as an employee walks around and helps when needed. Lunch is from noon to 1 p.m., and any leftover work is finished after that before switching to activities outside or in the gym.
Ross said they began to see interest grow as school districts announced what they were doing, and when some districts began changing plans and switching to all remote learning.
“It took awhile for parents to settle down and decide what to do,” she said.
Right now, the program has up to 16 kids, ages 5 through 12, in certain days. Some parents are using the program because they need childcare, others wanted socialization for the kids that would be at home with all virtual learning, Ross said.
“Some of the parents have chosen to homeschool for the year,” she said, and are using the homeschool gym classes. And the business is still offering its traditional classes in the evening.
Because of some districts’ hybrid schedules, they still have openings on certain days, Ross said.
The new program is scheduled through December 18, up to holiday break for school districts. Parents can do month-to-month to account for changes in pandemic regulations and district plans.
“I think we’ve structured things to try to accommodate parents as best we can,” Ross said. “They’re under a lot of stress.”
The business sounds busy during a time other small businesses are struggling.
“It’s a different kind of busy,” Ross said. “As a small business, we feel we can offer our customers good service, address concerns, and be flexible when they need something like this.”
Licensed facilities are also making changes to accommodate school-day needs for working parents.
Lightbridge Academy, which typically offers early education child care through kindergarten, expanded to offer virtual learning assistance for students up to fifth grade at its two Bethlehem locations.
Students follow virtual lessons and do online assignments with their respective school districts, and staff offer in-person help.
Lightbridge offers daycare in the summer for kids up to age 12 at its 50 locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York City and New York state. During the pandemic, it has added hospital-grade air purification systems, increased cleaning protocols, added temperature checks at entry and new mask requirements.
Two of the region’s largest and oldest child care providers — The Greater Valley YMCA is teaming with Lehigh Valley Children’s Centers — developed the Edu-Childcare Program.
The program is for children from kindergarten through 13 years old and aims to help with the virtual education part of their day.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has adjusted in the wake of new programs like KIDS CO-OP, and two weeks ago announced some regulation changes for non-licensed part-day school programs.
The programs used to have restrictions for school-age children, but “recognizing that families need flexibility right now, we’ve significantly modified and relaxed restrictions on school-age childcare,” Miller said.
The department has waived the 90-day limit on those type of programs, so they can continue to operate throughout the school year and provide childcare that families desperately need, Miller said.
The programs are not certified under childcare regulations, but the department is requiring them to follow same criteria for learning pods.
“We hope that these options ease the burden on some families of school-age children who are distance learning, either by their own choice or the choice of administrators at their child’s school,” Miller said.
“We have no intention or desire to cite anyone who doesn’t meet every expectation, however, in order to meet our obligation to protect children, we do maintain the ability to use enforcement action if necessary,” Miller said, adding most likely it would look like action against illegally operating in-home daycares.
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Sarah Cassi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.