People with school-aged children are likely juggling three priorities this fall in the age of COVID-19: Working, health and safety, and helping their children get a good education. And those priorities, for many, are competing interests.

“The question of, How are you going to be able to support your child's remote learning and be able to work at the same time? — particularly if you are not able to work at home — has been a constant issue,” said Eve Gilmore, executive director of Edward Street Child Services, which provides early learning services for young children.

Gilmore and other groups in Worcester are working to bridge that gap for at least some of the 25,000 kids in Worcester Public Schools. She's working on the issue with the ad-hoc group Worcester Together.

The exact number of families who need care during the school day for their children is unclear, Gilmore said, but there is evidence — based on state and local surveys — that the need is substantial. Remote learning means that kids who would normally be supervised at school face being unsupervised while their parents are at work.

“The general gist is 50 to 60 percent of parents are looking for some kind of support to be able to back them up in their caretaking of children as they learn remotely,” Gilmore said.

The state is also trying to help. An executive order issued in late August relaxed some requirements for opening child care centers. Among other things, it lets the Department of Early Education and Care authorize providers who are already licensed for after-school and out-of-school programs to operate during the school day, which is currently against state law. The temporary provision allows YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, family child care homes, and other facilities to care for school-age children who are learning remotely.

The executive order also allows some new licenses to be expedited for what are called Remote Learning Enrichment Programs. The state has received 10 applications so far, and approved seven. A spokesperson pointed out that applications must first go through local authorities, not the state. Gilmore said that some providers are finding the process disorganized and confusing. But they're working to figure out how to navigate the system so they can offer new options based on the governor's executive order.

The YMCA is among those who feel they've figured it out.

Pam Suprenant, the senior executive director at the Central Community Branch YMCA, said their program’s 335 spaces went fast. They now have a waitlist.

“The thing about central Mass., and the concern is, that there's way more need than there is capacity,” Suprenant said.

Suprenant said creating a COVID-19 compliant space took work. It meant fewer kids in rooms, socially distanced desks, and adding more electric outlets. They even installed new high-speed Internet to accommodate many kids being online at the same time.

“We’re literally turning exercise studios, rock gyms, different classrooms and spaces into classrooms,” she said. “But what else are we going to do?”

Val Casagranda’s son Camden got into the YMCA program, which she said was a relief.

“We didn't know what we were going to do," she said. "It was like, 'Who's quitting their job?' That was our only option."

Casagranda Family in Worcester
Val Casagranda (l) and her son, Camden, pose for a photo on their front porch in Worcester, Mass., on Sept. 11, 2020.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

Casagranda and her husband are both essential workers. Even with their two incomes, she said covering $225 a week for the program is a stretch.

“It's a huge expense,” she said. “When you think of public education, it's free. And I feel like we're paying for education.”

Affording these programs is a challenge not only for parents, but for providers, too. For example, Suprenant said it costs the YMCA $325 per child, per week to host children during the school day. The organization hasn't yet figured out how to pay for the $100 difference between that cost and what families pay per child.

Tim Garvin, the president and CEO of United Way of Central Massachusetts, a fundraising organization that supports a range of community organizations and activities including child care, said affordability and funding for this type of care has become a “hot potato.”

“Where is the financing for that going to come from? Is it going to be tax money? Is it going to be philanthropy money? Is it going to be a combination? Is it going to be fee for service? I don't think we've worked that out yet,” he said.

Margarita Santiago's family qualifies for a financial aid from the state to cover the cost of care, but she can't find a provider.

“I tried with the YWCA and unfortunately, they're under renovations, so they can't accommodate me,” she said.

The YWCA, which has an ongoing $24 million renovation of its Salem Square, is actively looking for space where they can host school kids. Darlene Belliveau, YWCA director of children's services, said they hear stories about the need for care every day.

“I've gotten a call from a parent that is using her older child … a high school student,” Belliveau said. “So this older child not only has to be a student — because she has her own work she has to do — then she has to be the mom, because the mom’s at work, and then she has to be the teacher for her siblings.”

Absent care at the YWCA, Santiago said her twins will stay with their dad, who’s working from home, while she heads to work.

Gilmore said there are now nearly 25 percent fewer day care centers in Worcester County because of COVID-19. And there’s still confusion over who has jurisdiction or how to apply for the new child care centers allowed by the governor’s recent executive order. Still, Gilmore said she’s remaining optimistic.

“We're all trying to achieve the same goal, which is to create a high-quality and safe environment for children to learn in this fall semester,” she said.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect an editing error. Eve Gilmore is working on child care-related issues with the ad-hoc group Worcester Together.