SCARBOROUGH — On Sept. 9, the Scarborough Town Council addressed the need for child care options as the school year begins as well as uncertainties that surround most aspects of the COVID-19 situation.

Councilors voted 5-2 in favor of the Town of Scarborough entering a 12-month lease on 418 Payne Road, the former House of Lights building, which is about 14,000 square feet, to offer families a child care program through the Community Services Department.

The town’s involvement and initiation of the program is in response to the school district’s decision to use a hybrid model as the school year begins, where half of the student body is physically in class and the other half is learning virtually for four days of the week, said Thomas Hall, town manager.

“It’s those days where students have expectations of attending synchronized learning virtually that parents and families are really having difficulty making that happen, and that’s the gap we’re trying to fill here,” he said.

Because of a number of reasons, the Scarborough School District does not have the means to support a child care program, Hall said.

However, the Board of Education sent the Town Council a message of support and said that school administrators have the intention to will assist the program. For example, the district will include students who are involved in the Community Service program with daily breakfasts and lunches.

Councilor Jean-Marie Caterina was pleased that students in the program will receive meals through the school district, she said.

“I’m very happy to see there is a way to make sure these kids get fed, particularly the ones who are in the paid school lunch program,” she said.

Todd Souza, director of Community Services, said that as a way to move students around the facility while still adhering to CDC guidelines and social distancing measures, the town has started with the idea of registering 40 students for the program, four groups of 10 students most weekdays and eight groups of ten students on Wednesdays, as no in-person learning will take place those days.

Community Services has proposed that staff be scheduled from either 7 a.m. to noon or from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour of overlap to share information and activity set-up.

“And that’s why we started with the number of 40, to figure out how do we safely move these groups around in the facility once we get set up and get it finally designed, to make sure we can get children in and out of a space, have time to clean up after them, have time to disinfect, and actually make a meaningful day while they’re there with us, potentially some of these kids for 11 hours a day,” Souza said.

Registration will move in three to four phases, depending on how many spaces are open, he said. The first priority will go towards students who are registered in the town’s before-school and after-school program.

“Next phase (is) for folks (were) part of initial registration (in the spring) but chose to pull out for whatever reason,” he said. “At that point, if we have space available, we’ll then open it up to the general public.”

If there is still space available, there will be a discussion on who the program wants to serve, Souza said.

“We’ll have a discussion with the town manager and anyone else that needs to be a part of it just to figure out where we philosophically want to be — Are we going to be supporting on a needs base?” he said. “Looking at essential workers, which could potentially mean residents with children out of town?”

One of the two opposing voters, Councilor Betsy Gleysteen, said, when the council was workshopping this proposal, there wasn’t much thought about what the CDC guidelines were when shutting down a program.

“Unfortunately, when you look at places that are going back to school, they are being largely successful, but they are having to close classrooms down,” she said. “Entire schools for the most part haven’t had to close down, but they’ve been able to keep kids isolated enough that a classroom here has had to stay home for 14 days or something like that. I’m hoping that’s the most that happens to us, but by our getting into this area, as good as this intention is, we may, as the town, accidentally close a classroom down. If we have some kids mixed, and there’s a positive case through close contact, whether it comes from the school side, and we have a kid from another class who’s in with that kid, then that classroom may have to be closed down.”

Liability is also an issue that Councilor Peter Hayes didn’t believe was looked into deeply enough, he said. There could be a way for the program to be offered through the school department, which might reduce liability, but the question of whether that would do so was not answered.

“I think there’s a way we can accomplish what we’re talking about doing here and minimize liability,” Hayes said. “I think we’re irresponsible if we don’t. We haven’t answered those questions — We’re just moving ahead.”

He added, “We’re actually talking about selecting 40 kids out of our whole community that are gonna benefit from this program. That is a significant subsidy. There are a ton of other families in the community who are also in need. We’re benefiting a select few and there’s many out there. I’ve talked to a lot of parents who are in real concerns about what they’re going to do.”

Hall said that the town has worked with its legal team to create policies, procedures, liability waiters, and a parent communication note, which will reduce potential liability.

“I think we’d be naive to say there’s no liability here, but again I think the general theory of negligence is really what comes to play here,” he said. “I think that would be true of schools, so long as you’re acting in good faith and following all of the proper procedures.”

Councilor Ken Johnson said that he thinks the Town Council has put in every measure possible to mitigate liability.

“Life is full of risk,” he said. “This is not a school problem. This is to help parents go back to work.”

The whole topic is surrounded in uncertainty, but the municipal side should help families if it has the ability, Councilor John Cloutier said.

“I think it’s part of our responsibility to help them through it in a responsible way,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have all the answers and that it’s going to be 100 percent and there’s no risk. It means we’re doing our due diligence and our best to create an imperfect solution to a really horrible situation. I wish we could offer it to everyone. I wish everyone could go back to school. That’s not on the table right now. We’re going to try to start small. I think the way this is being approached is responsible and reasonable.”

He said that he hoped the town could learn from the program for the future.

“I hope we can learn from it — how we can get kids back to school or in some kind of different format, some mix, that will allow working families to continue working and putting food on the table, and provide a safe space for kids who need it to keep up with their peers and learn,” he said.

The Council has worked quickly to provide this need that is imperfect but reflects a tricky situation parents are in, said Councilor Don Hamill.

“We’re trying to do something that’s a noble effort with compressed time frame a lot of uncertainties, and that’s the situation most parents are in having their kids go back to school,” he said. “These are individual decisions people need to make and it’s a decision we need to make as a council.”

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