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District works to tackle child care problem

Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion says finding solutions to an approaching child care storm is his top priority, and with a week to go before the first day of school at least part of the district’s answer is starting to take shape.

The district is partnering with Innovation Learning, Kid Time Children’s Museum and the YMCA in an effort to secure child care options for parents scrambling to figure out what to do with their young children who would ordinarily be headed back to school starting Sept. 8.

Schools in the Medford School District will not be open to on-site learning until at least Oct. 16, because Jackson County does not meet established metrics from the state regarding COVID-19 infection rates and test positivity rates. A decision regarding whether schools will reopen for on-site learning Oct. 19 will be announced by the district Sept. 29.

Though the district’s website was reporting Friday afternoon that Innovation Learning would be operating full-day (7 a.m. to 6 p.m.) child care at four local elementary schools, Champion said Friday that only Lone Pine Elementary is locked up as a child care site. That partnership is a work in progress, however, and similar partnerships with Kid Time and the YMCA, Champion said, will help fill the gaps.

Champion and MSD spokeswoman Natalie Hurd were on the phone with Kid Time Executive Director Sunny Spicer and Rogue Valley Family YMCA Executive Director Brad Russell Friday afternoon working out the kinks and attempting to troubleshoot the biggest problem, the one that many parents may be feeling more than any other come Sept. 8.

“[We’re] talking about how we can lower the cost for our employees and for the community, for everybody,” Champion said. “And to make the availability across the district — probably not at every school site, because we can save some money if we consolidate into some localized sites. But perhaps using our Oak Grove (Elementary) property, maybe Howard Elementary ... and then maybe another site or two to offer the child care.

“The reason that it would not be at every site is simply one of economic sense. We want to be able to maximize the number of kids we’re able to serve, which means we want to bring the costs down, which means we need to have some consolidation of places.”

According to a brochure linked to the district website, Innovation Learning charges $45 per day or $175 per week per child.

Hurd said the district is waiting to see what the enrollment numbers look like before deciding which schools Innovation Learning can potentially move into. Regarding COVID-19 precautions, every MSD partner is governed by the Oregon Health Authority’s Early Learning Division, which two weeks ago released the new Health and Safety Guidelines for Child Care and Early Education Operating in COVID-19. That 62-page document, available to download at oregonearlylearning.com, includes both requirements and recommendations — yes, there’s a difference — on subjects such as class sizes and caregivers-to-children ratios.

As for the price tag, a potential backbreaker for some families, Champion said he understands why parents would be frustrated to shell out big bucks for a service that’s ordinarily covered by tax dollars, but district staffers are working hard to minimize the blow.

“First off, we totally get it,” he said. “We completely understand that question, and the fact is what we pay for in schools is teachers to teach. Yes, it is great that it provides a place for kids to go, but the cost of paying teachers to teach still exists, and our amazing educators are continuing to do that work. I want to be clear: nobody likes this. This is not what we signed up for, it’s not the way that we want to do school, and that’s why we are really pushing to get to green and to get back to school.

“We’re doing everything in our power to drive the cost down, to make it affordable for everyone, and we’re continuing to pay our teachers to do the work of teaching.”

Champion added that the district is looking at other governmental agencies for possible federal, state and local funding in order to offset the cost of child care. Also, he said, the district is looking into using its own staff to help with child care, a move, he says, that “will instantly bring some of the costs down.”

Regarding how remote learning will look, Champion said the system the district used last spring has been completely overhauled and should be easier for students and teachers.

“People were working hard in the spring, I don’t mean to say that,” he said. “But what we’re doing now is school. It’s just that we’re doing it virtually and not in a brick-and-mortar building.”

But, he added, most of the input the district has received regarding the coming school year zeroed in on one specific topic, which has become his top priority.

“We’re trying to solve the child care question as best we can,” he said. “I can tell you that it is definitely the number one concern on the minds of our community and our families and our employees. So we are actively trying to figure out how we can best support all those folks and support our students in the process.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.