- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2020

Under California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emergency order, the novel coronavirus threat has been deemed to make it too dangerous for many school districts to reopen for instruction.

But it’s not been deemed too dangerous for children to go to those same schools for child care — at a price.

That frustrates Christine Ruiz, the mother of three boys, who called it “ridiculous” that her Los Angeles-area school district is deemed safe enough to offer parent-paid child care at its buildings but not taxpayer-funded in-person education.

“Our empty classrooms that the taxpayers are funding are being converted to day-care centers, and they’re charging parents $800 a month per child to drop off their kids — at our old classrooms,” Ms. Ruiz said. “If it’s OK for our schools to open up their classrooms for day care, why can’t you open up for school?”

Ms. Ruiz, one of 10 defendants suing to reopen state schools in a lawsuit filed by the Center for American Liberty, added that “a lot of parents are very upset.”

California isn’t alone.

Corey DeAngelis, director of school choice at the Reason Foundation, said he has found school districts in several states, including North Carolina and Virginia, allowing paid child care in the same classrooms closed until further notice for in-person instruction.

“It’s too dangerous for teachers, but it’s not too dangerous for other people to show up?” asked Mr. DeAngelis. “It’s a way for the teachers’ union essentially to get what they want, and you have limited expectations for teachers, yet you have other people doing the same job.

“Why is it OK for these child-care providers to do the job of the teacher, but then the teacher’s not doing the job of the teacher?” asked Mr. DeAngelis. “It’s just so absolutely bonkers. And they’re now paying two people for the job of one.”

Most major urban school districts are planning to start the fall semester with virtual-learning only, with some backing down after teachers’ unions stage fought in-person reopenings with protests featuring tombstones, coffins and “obituaries.”

“We have been saying from the beginning, it is not safe if the infection rates in the community are not low, and low for two weeks,” Becky Pringle, National Education Association incoming president, said on Fox News. “We’ve been saying it’s not safe if they do not have the resources for mask and other protective gear. … Without the resources, it is going to put our students at risk.”

San Francisco lawyer Harmeet K. Dhillon, president of the Center for American Liberty, argued the in-school child-care programs undermine the teachers’ union arguments about COVID-19 safety.

“Many of these schools are charging for day care,” she said on a recent press call. “I think that demonstrates the fallacy that the schools are unsafe.”

The difference may lie in which services are considered essential and which are not. Many child-care centers have remained open during the COVID-19 epidemic, often serving the children of essential workers such as doctors, nurses and police, while operating under heightened health-and-safety protocols.

The California Department of Public Health drew a distinction between babysitting and education, saying, “Child care licensing standards distinguish those programs from schools.”

“Additionally, child care is in smaller groups and cohorts, and typically brings together fewer families and children per site on average compared to schools,” the department told EdSource.

Are child-care centers safer than classrooms?

“These guidelines and considerations are based on the most current available public health data, which does not indicate that either setting is safer than the other at this time,” the department said.

After the Fairfax County Public Schools said the district would reopen with 100% virtual learning, the county unveiled Supporting Return to School, a program of “active and engaged learning during the FCPS virtual academic day” held at 37 school buildings.

The district said that a “sliding fee scale will be available for income-eligible families,” with monthly fees ranging from $80 to $1,472 per child, according to the county website.

District spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said in an email that “FCPS is not offering child care,” calling SRS “a program that aims to serve vulnerable students,” while county spokesperson Amanda Rogers said that students would be limited to 10 per classroom.

“OFC [Office for Children] teachers will be staffing the SRS program,” Ms. Rogers said in an email. “The program will be able to accommodate approximately 60 children per site. Each classroom will have a group of no more than 10 children who will stay together each day, along with consistent staff to support their online learning and in-person connections.”

Even though the program is run by the county and not the district, Mr. DeAngelis said the program sounds a lot like public school, except that parents are paying for it.

“The [Virginia] constitution says schools must be free, or taxpayer-funded. Well, they’re charging families for the same schools,” said Mr. DeAngelis. “Imagine if a private school did this: ‘Well, we know you paid us $15,000, but we’re not going to reopen unless you give us another $15,000.’ Most people would call that extortion.”

In Arizona, American Center for Law and Justice executive director Jordan Sekulow challenged plans by the Gilbert Public Schools to offer child care on nine campuses for students in kindergarten through eighth grade at $160 per week, calling on the district to offer classroom access and supervision free of charge.

Lawyers for the school district pushed back, arguing in an Aug. 3 letter that the day-care service “is not an educational program of the District, it is a child care program,” as well as a “community service.”

“This option is no different than child care options they can choose from in the private sector or by hiring a babysitter to supervise their children during the school day, except that the tuition is extremely low compared to many other options,” said attorney Denise Lowell-Britt in the letter.

Ultimately, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey stepped in with an executive order requiring school districts that opt for virtual learning to provide “free on-site learning opportunities and support services for students who need a place to go during the day.”

Mr. Sekulow applauded the governor’s order, insisting that while many of the paid programs advertise themselves as child care, they also offer instruction and other services more in line with the classroom than the playroom.

“What we’re finding out in these places is that they try to call themselves child-care centers, but when we saw how they explained it on their website, you were getting a lot more than childcare,” Mr. Sekulow said. “It said on the website kids would be getting assistance on completing their assignments, and that’s a big step up, keeping your child on track with virtual learning.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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