Childcare Centers Prepare for Shift to Distance Learning Support

Area childcare centers may be more popular than ever as parents scramble for help during a school year when their children will be out of the classroom more than they are in it.

In addition to expanding their already stringent cleaning standards and adding in social distancing protocols, many local childcare centers are looking to expand their program offerings to allow a seamless transition for elementary-aged children to virtual classrooms inside their centers.

Eric Thompson, director of Kickers Sports & Martial Arts Complex in Ashburn, said internet traffic for his business’ website has skyrocketed since the School Board announced students won’t be heading back to the classroom fulltime this fall. The division is offering two options, a hybrid model of learning for most of its elementary, middle and high school students, to include two days of in-person learning, supplemented by three days weekly of distance learning; and a full-time distance learning model. Parents have until Monday to choose with option they want for their children. [See story, Page 8] 

It’s a change Thompson and his staff have been preparing for since shortly after the stateside onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. 

“We started getting all of our grants and everything together early, so in the first two weeks we had all the paperwork out there. We focused on programs for the future in building up school [offerings], getting it ready on the inside, so later in the ballgame when [businesses] were trying to get grants from the state and Paycheck Protection Program loans, we already had ours. When [the School Board announced its decision] we already pretty much had a program in place,” he said.

Fortuitously, Thompson was also forward-thinking enough last fall, pre-pandemic, to purchase buses instead of large passenger vans to shuttle children to and from programs. The business had also moved to a much larger facility two weeks before COVID-19-related shutdowns began, and thus is able to accommodate more students.

Thompson said he plans to cap the number of children he will accept at 60, though his facility is large enough to accommodate up to 120. 

“We’re just trying to make it so we don’t have too many kids in there. It would be perfect business-wise because we could fill it up and make a ton of money but it’s not the right thing to do,” he said.

Kickers will offer both full-day and after-school programming for elementary-school-aged children come the fall, with the goal to keep kids’ lives as normal as possible, Thompson said. The staff will assist the children with their classwork assigned via distance learning, and also integrate in specials throughout the day, like music, art, and physical education. The majority of schoolwork will occur in the morning hours, he said. Already dozens of families have signed up for the upcoming school year.

Nearby in Sterling, the Karter School will soon roll out its elementary enhancement program, which Executive Director Terri Green said the staff has been working on since March.

“We were anticipating the need and also we feel very strongly that, especially first through third graders had a hard time with distance learning. They were missing the social piece; they thrive on hands-on learning. We thought, ‘What can we do to help support them to keep their love of learning going?’ And it’s hard because a lot of is not in our control because we had to wait on the county to make decisions, but at the same time we needed to be proactive and ready to help these children,” she said.

Green makes an important distinction in what Karter School will be offering.

“It’s not our after-school program. It’s not daycare. It’s not childcare. It’s not babysitting. It’s school,” she said.

The center will offer the option for either three- or five-day programs from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with extended care also available. Certified teachers, two to a grade, will assist students with their curriculums, with students broken into grades, as well as clusters of 10. Classes will max out at 20 students. Students also will rotate out for specials, like PE, culinary arts, language arts, creative moment, science, and technology. 

Last week, when the school rolled out a sneak peek of its fall offerings, it had 12 sign-ups within the first hour, Green reported. They are already almost full for the program. 

Creative Gardens in Ashburn is used to a model of personalized learning, and CEO Garrett Wilhelm said he believes that’s something many parents, and students, crave after a spring of distance learning.

“What is missing right now is a teacher that can actually give a lesson on a concept but there’s no follow up,” to make sure a student understands the concept, he said. “I think that’s what we all experienced as parents. We watched kids check boxes. For me it’s about stoking the fire of learning. Not only are we supporting Loudoun County, but we are actually supplementing [the curriculum] with a project-based learning curriculum that’s exciting and fun, coupled with music and yoga. We’re providing somewhat of a structured day when we haven’t had structure in a few months.”

Wilhelm said he had Facebook, Instagram and TikTok ads and more ready to go once the School Board announced its decision. The outreach from parents has been immediate.

“We take phone calls and we get most of our information online. I get roughly 10 to 15 interest forms a day. I’ve already talked to two people for 30-minute information sessions this morning. It’s not about if we fill this program, it’s about when,” Wilhelm said. 

The program has the ability to accommodate up to 30 elementary school-aged students. He believes they have a leg up on the competition in that Creative Gardens has been doing personalized learning already.

“This isn’t a reinvention. For me as a business owner I don’t like to put programs out there where I can’t do well. We have a unique opportunity in this time, even if only for one year. That’s exposure to my place. It only can do great for me and great for the business,” he said. 

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