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Parents: Y Cares program 'stepped up to the plate'

ASHLAND — After the Ashland School District announced distance learning will continue through Jan. 29, 2021, Community Relations Director Michele Mitzel said the Ashland YMCA will continue offering its Y Cares program as long as the community requires the service.

Through the program, outdoor recess, individual play, extracurricular activities and distance learning assistance are available for children under one roof.

When school began in September, the YMCA enrolled 58 students ages 5-12 in Y Cares, which offers wireless internet access and general assistance with online lessons, physical activity and social time in line with state COVID-19 safety standards.

Students and Y Cares staff are required to wear face masks, submit to a daily healthy screening and temperature check, limit group sizes and increase hand washing. Each student is assigned to their own physical space.

“When you have parents who are in the medical industry, and they are trusting us to bring their children here because they know we are creating a safe environment for their kids and we’re trying to keep it as healthy as possible, that says something,” Mitzel said.

Third-grader Addison Dinger has been part of YMCA programs since preschool. The facility is like a second home.

When school transformed into distance learning, Nikki Dinger and her husband had some tough calls to make, including whether to pull their daughter out of gymnastics and other YMCA activities for safety.

They didn’t use any Y activities through the summer, but with both parents working full time, they needed to find a place for Addison to socialize and allow some home-based parent work to get done. The family considered hiring a single in-home care provider to limit exposure but found the Y Cares program to be less expensive while also providing a social outlet.

“The YMCA just stepped up to the plate and put all of these different things in place to make it feel safe for us,” Nikki Dinger said. “We feel good that she is not on her iPad playing games all afternoon.”

Students don’t share devices or toys, objects are frequently sanitized and lunch tables are separated by six feet. Class sizes were reduced to 10 or fewer for gymnastics, class times are spaced to allow for sanitizing in between, and students in one class move through stations to avoid congregating.

Addison has still met new friends and enjoys her after-school activities. She looks forward to Fridays in the pool, where they swim and play games six feet apart. Five lifeguards and two Kids Club teachers ensure they follow the rules.

“I was really excited that I could finally go somewhere and have some time with other people,” she said.

Nikki Dinger made clear with her daughter that if school work didn’t get done as well, she would have to stay home, though it would mean sacrificing independent parent work time. So far, teachers have reported Addison shows up for Zoom meetings and completes her work. The Y has created a space conducive to focus, Nikki Dinger said.

The Dingers are enrolled in the half-day program, while others use the service as full day care from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Dustin Poland’s sons Carter, first grade, and Dawson, fourth grade, attend Walker Elementary. Signing up for Y Cares came after learning from a difficult work-from-home situation in the spring. Both Poland parents can generally work from home on a flexible schedule, but some scenarios arise that require on-site attention.

In the spring, the children were at home, doing school with parental help. Husband and wife tag-teamed days when one would work from home and help with schooling while the other went to work. The system was functional, but challenging.

For the fall, accessing assistance for the students’ online schooling was a primary consideration, followed by health considerations, Dustin Poland said.

“Seeing the attention to detail that they put in put us at ease,” he said. “They’re continually making improvements and keeping an eye on the ever-changing regulatory environment, and it shows.”

As a parent approaching his children with what would be different, Poland said the transition was relatively seamless. His sons were accustomed to visiting the Y for after-school care and responded well to hearing they would still be “attending” school, just at the Y, where they have connected well with counselors and enjoy time in the gym.

Poland agreed the cost is worthwhile at $175 per week, per child. Still, after recently transitioning out of day care expenses for younger children, essentially paying for public school became an unexpected financial consideration.

Mitzel said through Y Cares, scholarships are available for families that qualify for free school lunches.

For mother Katie Young, enrolling her son in the Y Cares program was a matter of keeping her job. Fortunately, Elliott is self-driven and understood quickly that his job is to be an attentive student. Still, the program has surpassed Young’s hopes, simply by caring for each child, she said.

With health care workers in all three families, safety precautions haven’t strayed from satisfactory and each parent said staff guidance has ensured a simple technical difficulty doesn’t interfere with a lesson.

Thus far, challenges have been minor, Mitzel said. Some students don’t have headphones or forget to bring their device fully charged. The Y installed wireless access points and backup internet for students.

“I think that communication is key and being flexible is key,” Mitzel said. “It’s our first time doing virtual learning as it is the teachers’ first time and the parents’ first time and the kids’ first time — we’re all doing this for the first time.”

Mitzel is confident the program can sustain unknown timelines and circumstances associated with the pandemic by remaining adaptable yet focused on putting parents at ease.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Allayana Darrow / Ashland Tidings Dawson Poland, Elliott Hardin and Addison Dinger play together at the YMCA Kids Club Thursday.