Families in Portland Public Schools are worried about how their child care needs will be met this fall if the district moves to a proposed hybrid model that would have most children start the year attending school in-person two days per week.

Brittany Wales is a single mother of three with two children at Gerald E. Talbot Community School. Wales, 32, said she is considering leaving her job as a direct support professional and applying for unemployment because she hasn’t been able to find affordable child care.

“If they’re going to do hybrid or full time (remote) who is going to watch my children on the days they can’t go to school?” Wales said. “The two days they are going to school, are they going to have before and after care or am I going to have to leave my job and fight for unemployment like all the other millions of Mainers trying to get it right now?”

Brittany Wales with her children Gigi, 10, Jahsia, 7, and Reena, 3, at their home in Portland. Wales, 32, said she is considering leaving her job and applying for unemployment because she hasn’t been able to find affordable child care. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The concerns from parents come as the Portland Board of Public Education is poised to vote Tuesday on a return-to-school model and as the district has scaled back expectations for a community partners program it had originally hoped would be able to provide child care on remote days for about 1,000 students. There are about 3,200 preK-5 students in the district.

The proposed hybrid plan the board is looking at would bring those students back for two days in-person starting Sept. 14 and aims to have all preK-5 students back five days per week by mid-October, although the school day would be shortened to five hours.

“I share their concerns,” said Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana. “If we were able to do more we would, but there is a limit to what we’re able to achieve and we’re trying to set realistic expectations and not say to people we’ll be able to do something and then not deliver on it.”

Botana said the district’s current goal is to have around 200 slots available in a child care program on remote learning days and that children of staff and families who either don’t have other arrangements or can’t afford them would be prioritized. He said the district is also working on creating a before and after care program that would continue to serve families when the district hopefully moves to five days per week of in-person for preK-5 students in October.

“This is extremely challenging,” Botana said. “We are in a pandemic. Nobody has perfect solutions that will work for everyone. We recognize this need and have been working to be able to fill that need. We’ll have a relatively small number of options available and that’s the best we’ve been able to do.

“I understand the hardship and I sympathize with the hardship. That’s why we’ve prioritized – given where the state is in terms of COVID – getting younger children in particular into school now, so we can sort of reduce that need and the anxiety that families feel not having clear and reliable plans for those days where we are remote.”

Wales was working three jobs and lost two of them when COVID hit. Her older children have been attending a day camp this summer while her 3-year-old is in child care. “I can only pay for child care for a 3-year-old, and that’s already $210 per week,” Wales said.

With her older children’s summer camp ending, Wales said she is considering leaving her job. “Kids who are going back to high school or going back to college, they can’t watch our kids,” she said. “They have obligations. Who do you count on? Child care doesn’t take children above a certain age. Me and many other mothers I speak to, we’re stuck.”

Samuel Rich, the parent of an incoming kindergartner, said he and his wife are considering whether one of them will need to take a leave of absence from their jobs. “It’s been frustrating trying to figure out exactly what sort of care coverage we need,” Rich said. “I think that’s the hardest part is the uncertainty.”

He said the family was excited to hear the district would be working with community partners on child care solutions, but disappointed to hear care on remote days would be mostly limited to staff.

“No one is going to be able to make this work in a household where both parents work,” Rich said. “It seems like no one is really talking about it. We’re definitely all talking about it to each other but it seems like it gets drowned out in the national conversation and everything going on.”

Rich, who works from home for a nonprofit, said his family will be able to figure something out, but he worries about others. “It feels like we won’t even know what the schedules will be until a week or a week-and-a-half before, which is kind of wild,” he said.

Grace Valenzuela, director of communications and community partnerships for Portland Public Schools, said the district is in communication with community partners on the ability to provide all-day programming on remote learning days for staff and the neediest families, but has only secured 15 spots per day. “The rest have not been able to respond affirmatively, so it’s something we’re still in communication about to see if they can do,” Valenzuela said.

Reena, 3, plays with a doll at home in Portland. Her mother, Brittany Wales, is worried about childcare under the proposed hybrid model for Portland schools. “I can only pay for child care for a 3-year-old, and that’s already $210 per week,” Wales said.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

While the district had been exploring all-day programming on a larger scale, Valenzuela said space, staffing and programming constraints of community partners, which include about 30 organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club and the city’s recreation department, have limited the options. Those two partners have committed to being able to offer before and after care on in-person school days for about 300 students so far, and Valenzuela said the district is working to secure additional spots.

Nicole Bradeen, who works at Waynflete School and whose husband is a school counselor in Saco, said she thinks the district is doing as much as it can to expand options, but her family is struggling.

“I start school next Thursday and we have no child care,” said Bradeen, who has children going into kindergarten and third grade. “It’s more of a societal issue. How do employers better support working parents of K-8 children?”

Valenzuela said Portland schools are also trying to make families aware of the Child Care Subsidy Program, which parents can apply for to help pay for child care while they go to work, school or job training. Families must also meet income eligibility requirements.

“If you don’t meet those guidelines and that’s my family – we’re right above that — we’re still having a hard time making sure we have good child care, both someone who can meet our needs and flexibility and something that’s affordable,” Bradeen said.

Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said districts around the state are working to help families find child care solutions.

The department is encouraging districts to work with local child care providers to coordinate planning and is providing support in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services to explore child care considerations and identify needs. Federal coronavirus relief funds for schools can also be used to help support needs related to child care, according to a notice sent by the department this week.

“School leaders are keenly aware of this need for the community, and for themselves and their own teachers who are also parents,” Deveaux said in an email. “It’s not easy to find and can be really expensive, and many are scrambling to figure out a solution for the near future, or as long as this lasts.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.