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Safe Spaces: Back-To-School Options For Cleveland's Working Parents

Rahaim Stubblefield, 16 (right), and David Warner, 16 (center), both of Cleveland, use the computers in the teen room following an afternoon playing basketball at the Boys & Girls Club on Broadway Avenue in the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland. The computers are placed more than six-feet apart to accommodate the new distancing rules. [Tim Harrison for ideastream]
two boys, six feet a apart work at separate computers in the Boys & Girls Club in Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood

For some parents of school-age children, the decision of most Northeast Ohio school districts to start the school year with remote and virtual learning came as a relief as uncertainty about increasing cases of COVID-19 and possible outbreaks looms.

But for many Cleveland area parents, the news sparked different worries. Parents who can’t work from home, don’t have access to a reliable internet connection or the necessary virtual learning technology, or live in neighborhoods with high levels of gun violence, are balancing the worry of exposure to the coronavirus with concerns for their children falling behind in school or being unsafe at home alone.

Community after-school programs and some area churches are stepping in with plans to offer safe, digitally-equipped, socially-distanced places for kids to learn during school hours beginning in September. The hope is that they can help parents keep working and prevent students from potentially falling further behind this school year.

Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio accelerated plans to expand its programs as soon as Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon announced in July that students would learn remotely for at least the first nine weeks of the school year, a decision followed by many other local districts.

One of many concerns is the well-known “digital divide” in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, said Jeff Scott, who was announced as the new president and CEO in April. More than 40 percent of Cleveland households don’t have regular access to broadband, according to a digital inclusion study and U.S. Census data from 2018.

The clubs normally serve about 2,000 kids, aged 6 to 18, daily at 39 centers in Cleveland, Akron and Lorain and Erie counties. The arts and recreational activities and tutoring and career readiness programs traditionally are provided after school.

“It just makes your stomach churn,” Scott said, about the thought that students, through no fault of their own, might lose academic ground. “That's why we are so committed to figuring out a model that allows us to operate during the [school] day.”

In April, a CMSD survey of parents led to estimates that as many as two-thirds of families did not have electronic devices needed for learning at home.

The district scrambled in the spring to distribute more than 10,000 computers and Wi-Fi hotspots to students. Local foundations and businesses have contributed millions of dollars and donated hotspots for the fall, though it is unclear how many students still lack adequate computers and high-speed internet access needed for remote learning. CMSD schools last week were conducting more parent surveys about technology needs.

Local pastors also will offer support to working parents and their children by opening up as many as 20 churches to school-age children in September.

The Cleveland Clergy Coalition hopes to offer safe places with digital connections and adult supervision during the nine weeks or longer of remote learning, said Pastor Aaron Phillips, who leads the coalition.

Some of the member congregations provided after-school programming and tutoring before the pandemic, Phillips said, but the demand is expected to be greater this fall, especially for parents who must work.

Other organizations, such as YWCA of Greater Cleveland, local charter schools and youth development programs are also looking at operating small learning centers for school-age children.

A Test Run

The Boys & Girls Clubs estimates it might be able to serve about 500 to 700 students at its standalone centers, three of which are in Cleveland, where 37,000 kids attend district schools and more attend charter and parochial schools.

Churches are still gauging demand and figuring out how many students each building can accommodate.

With a small number of students using the facilities each day, Boys & Girls Clubs believes it can operate safely. The organization also feels confident in its plans because, in a sense, it’s already had a test run, Scott said.

In June, the organization decided to re-open nine of its Northeast Ohio locations to provide meals and safe gathering places for kids dealing with stress from the pandemic, social and racial unrest and rising levels of community violence, Scott said.

The first time a club learned of an exposure to the virus – which has since happened a handful of times – it shut down for three workdays and over the weekend for cleaning, with leaders making sure front-line staff were comfortable with re-opening, Scott said.

“The biggest thing we learned is that you can have all the decision trees and protocols and documentation of protocols in place that you want, but it still comes down to people working with people,” Scott said.

In a process similar to what the clubs do when a member or family experiences community violence, they now activate a task force within an hour of learning of a positive COVID-19 case to learn what happened, find out how staff and families are feeling, make a plan to respond to concerns and plan for next steps, he said.

That includes balancing health issues related to the coronavirus with the other safety issues kids face daily. In July, the week the decision was made for Cleveland schools to initially open remotely, the city recorded 83 official coronavirus deaths, five more than the 78 reported homicide deaths.

“It really is about the nuances of all these situations,” Scott said. “And you're in a tactical battle on a day-to-day basis and make the best decision that you can based on the information that you have. But the inputs are many. The inputs are about the virus, the inputs are about our kids’ safety and all of the social unrest and the racial equity issues that we're dealing with,” he said.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio reopened nine of its 39 clubs in June, including this one on Broadway Avenue in Cleveland. The clubs are working on a plan to serve school-age children during the day at multiple locations so students can learn safely and have access to needed technology for remote learning. [Tim Harrison for ideastream]

A Challenge For Churches

The churches that will open to students, mostly on Cleveland’s East Side and in the inner-ring suburbs, face a litany of logistical issues to get their spaces ready and to assure that proper health protocols are in place for children who would come during the daytime hours to learn.

“It’s a matter of safety as well as providing the tutoring and educational piece that we know our students are going to need during this virtual period as well,” Phillips said.

The project, he said, won’t be easy.

“It’s a huge undertaking and we don’t know where the funding resources are going to be to help us with any of this,” he said.

The challenge of opening to students is also compounded by the higher rate of COVID-19 infections in Cleveland’s Black community, Phillips said. As of July 15, Black Clevelanders have made up 73 percent of the hospitalizations for COVID-19 and 57 percent of the deaths attributed to complications from the disease, though they make up about half of the city’s population.

At the same time, “we need to have our people get to work, especially with enhanced unemployment benefits expiring,” Phillips said, referring to the $600 in additional weekly unemployment benefits that expired at the end of July.

Negotiations over a second federal relief package, including enhanced unemployment benefits, a new round of stimulus payments and funding for small businesses and state and local governments, have stalled. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that will allow Ohioans to get $300 in additional unemployment benefits from the federal government, half of what was previously available. Those payments could take time to come and the president’s order is likely to be challenged in court.

National Effort

Efforts similar to Cleveland’s are emerging across the country, particularly in urban areas, where concerns about COVID-19 have to be balanced with the realities of keeping children fed and safe from violence and other risks where they live.

Higher-income families are creating “learning pods” by hiring educators to help with instruction for small groups of children while schools are closed or operating virtually, said Jen Rinehart, vice president for Research & Policy at the Afterschool Alliance.

Replicating that pod-style learning with local organizations or programs that serve low-income families can help prevent existing inequities from being further exacerbated, she said. The alliance created a blueprint for programs looking to partner with school districts.

But those endeavors will need public policy support and funding so all young people have access to a safe, supervised place to be. A place that offers technology support, access to food and additional enrichment, she said.

One obstacle is that current federal funding, through child care and education grants that support before- and after-school programs, only allow money to be spent when school is not in session. Afterschool Alliance and other providers have asked the U.S. Department of Education to relax those rules so the money can be used to serve kids who are learning virtually during the school day, Rinehart said.

A Safe Haven

The need to help kids during school hours is more acute in a city like Cleveland so working parents, particularly breadwinning single mothers, can continue to support their families and children can be safe from neighborhood violence, Scott said.

Violent crime in Cleveland neighborhoods is up. Homicides have increased about 20 percent from last year and shootings have jumped nearly 40 percent, according to Cleveland police crime statistics.

Four kids involved with Boys & Girls Clubs in Cleveland have been killed or had a family member killed by gun violence since the beginning of May, Scott said. Pre-pandemic, incidents might have happened once every couple of months, he said.

Attendance at the King Kennedy Club was down recently following several shootings, Scott said, and children were afraid to walk the 200 yards to the club from the King Kennedy Estates, where many of the members live.

Planning For School

Over the next few weeks, staff from Boys & Girls Clubs will plan for each site that will open to students, working with school districts from Cleveland to Sandusky, Scott said.

Staff members are trying to answer a long list of questions, including:

  • How many kids they can safely serve?
  • Should gyms be used to spread kids out?
  • What hours should they be open?
  • What infrastructure additions – from desks to power cords, fiber optic cables and hotspots – are needed?
  • How long it will take to ramp up and how much it will cost?

Ideally, the clubs will create distance-learning pods where children can set up to do school work and the center’s youth development staff can proctor, helping students with their work.

Depending on the club, the plan is to serve children aged 6 to 18 and group them by age, like the old one-room schoolhouse model, Scott said. 

The centers hope to continue to offer after-school programs by closing to clean for a few hours each day and then re-opening, Scott said.

The Boys & Girls Clubs and the clergy coalition each said they are working closely with CMSD to reach families that might need help the most. They are also learning how to use the district’s new online education software and discussing whether district transportation might be available for some students.

CMSD officials did not respond to questions about community efforts to support students’ learning.


This story is part of Coping With COVID-19, an ideastream reporting project and local journalism collaborative funded by Third Federal Foundation and University Settlement. The series expands coverage of the local impacts of COVID-19 in Northeast Ohio and investigates how the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted and laid bare the existing inequities that stem from decades of disinvestment in public health, the social safety net, preventive medicine and communities of color.