Gary Desrochers picks up his kindergarten-age daughter from Youth & Family Outreach in Portland on Friday. Desrochers, who works at Maine Medical Center, said, “The child care aspect ties into employers being able to do what they need to do to stay solvent and provide their service.”  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Childcare programs that provide support to Portland families during hybrid learning could come to an end this month, with federal coronavirus relief funding set to expire and school officials uncertain about whether they’ll see more aid.

Superintendent Xavier Botana is expected to present a proposal to the Board of Public Education on Tuesday for how the district plans to proceed after Dec. 30, the federal deadline for when states must expend coronavirus relief funds. The recommendation calls for the district to reallocate savings from other areas to keep paying staff, while discontinuing childcare for students on days they’re not at school in person.

“I just can’t quite imagine the impact on our families,” said Camelia Babson-Haley, executive director of Youth & Family Outreach, one of 13 partners that have been working with Portland Public Schools on childcare during hybrid learning. “Many of our families are immigrants or asylum seekers and they don’t have any other source of subsidy for their children. We can’t do this for free. Some parents might be able to pay out of pocket, but the majority won’t and there is no other source of funding for them.”

The board will hold a workshop on the proposal Tuesday and is expected to vote at its meeting Dec. 22. It was unclear Friday exactly how many children are served by the childcare programs. According to board materials, it will cost about $1.7 million to run the programs, including both remote day and before- and after-school programs, through the rest of the school year.

Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for Portland Public Schools, said in an email Friday that Botana was not available to answer questions, and that she did not have answers to questions about how many students are served by the programs.

“I’m sure details will be provided at the board meeting next week,” she said.


In August, Botana said the district’s goal was able to offer around 200 spots for childcare on remote learning days in addition to before- and after-care on in-person days. Several families at Youth and Family Outreach Friday stressed how important the program has been for them as it has allowed parents to continue working while their children are only in school in-person two days per week right now under the district’s hybrid model.

“It’s very helpful because we can’t afford to have two kids in daycare,” said Bri Spears, whose first-grade son is in the community partners program at Youth & Family Outreach and whose daughter attends preschool there.

Vangu Mbizi picks up her two children from Youth & Family Outreach in Portland on Friday. She said that if the program were to stop, she would have to quit working to stay at home with her kids. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Vangu Mbizi, who has a kindergartner and first-grader in the program and works making masks at American Roots in Westbrook, said it has also been essential to her as she doesn’t have anyone to stay home with them while she is working. “I’m grateful for the help here,” she said. “If not for this place it would be very difficult.”

Gary Desrochers, who works in social services at Maine Medical Center, said he would be able to pay for the childcare if not for the community partners program, though it would impact his family’s budget. He said he would still have the peace of mind of having a place for his daughter to go during the day, while other families might not be as lucky.

“It helps our employer who is wanting us to be on and be present at work,” Desrochers said. “The child care aspect ties into employers being able to do what they need to do to stay solvent and provide their service, wherever you work. It’s all connected.”

The board is considering scholarships and looking for other ways to help mitigate the impact on families who use the programming, according to school board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez, who said board members also met with the mayor and city manager to inform them of the situation. Rodriguez said while the meeting was positive it did not yield any additional sources of funding.


“This is just another really painful impact of the pandemic,” he said. “As much as these funds have helped so far, the deadline where these funds expire puts us in a huge bind. … We’re all working around the clock to try and support these families who need these services.”

Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, has received about $14 million in coronavirus relief funds, which was established under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, to make payments to be used by state and local governments. Out of $1.25 billion the state received, Gov. Janet Mills has dedicated $329 million to schools.

Teacher Evelyne Kanku fills up a child’s water bottle as students take a break while playing outside Friday afternoon at Youth & Family Outreach in Portland. The program is potentially in jeopardy because federal coronavirus relief is expiring at the end of the month. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Several school districts around Maine have expressed concerns about the federal Dec. 30 deadline to spend the money and members of the state’s congressional delegation have said they support more flexibility. Portland has only allocated $10.5 million of the $14 million made available by the state, but Botana said at a November finance committee meeting that he had not received any word the deadline might be changed.

Congress is looking at a $908 billion relief package unveiled earlier this week by a group of bipartisan senators that includes $82 billion for education, $10 billion for childcare and $160 billion for state and local governments, but it’s unclear if and when the package might go to a vote. The office of U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, said Friday that the senator supports extending the federal deadline for spending the current funds and it’s under discussion among the group working to finalize the text of the legislation.

“This is exactly why Senator Collins is working night and day to write a compromise bill that will provide additional relief to Maine families, communities, and schools that are struggling,” Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, said in a statement. “While negotiations remain ongoing, we expect the bill to include an extension of the deadline states have to spend the CARES Act funding.

“Senator Collins has repeatedly supported extending this deadline.”


At the school board’s Nov. 19 finance committee meeting, Botana said if more relief is passed the district could theoretically go back to its community partners and ask if they could resume the programs, but that could be difficult.

“This will obviously have implications for their staffing,” he said. “Families will also make other arrangements and things along those lines, so obviously this gets complex very quickly.”

In the meantime, school board members said they are forced to plan as if they might not receive additional funds. According to the superintendent’s proposal, it will cost the district about $5 million to maintain the current staffing and programs put in place to respond to the pandemic for the rest of the school year. Drawing on savings and contingency funds to keep the staff, the district could bring the amount of funding needed down to about $1.8 million but would not have enough to cover the community partners programs.

Options to continue the programs are still being assessed, and the district is also working with the city to try and continue before and after care programs at the recreation department on days when students are in school in-person but on a shortened school day.

“It’s very hard to see reducing or ending our support for the community partners, but there just aren’t viable alternatives as I see it,” said school board member Emily Figdor, who is expected to be named the next board chair on Monday. “I think it will be really tough on families. The community partners provided safe and engaging programming for students and I think it’s been a lifeline for families.”

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