Some parents of children in kindergarten to eighth grade could find child-care relief if a proposal from area nonprofits comes to fruition. Photo courtesy Berkshire Hills Regional School District

New kids ‘CLuB’ offers ‘sliver of hope’ to South County parents during pandemic

Coalition members and collaborating partners will also offer in-person enrichment activities in their fields of expertise: art, science, dance, theater, outdoor skills, nature connection and physical education.

Great Barrington — When students in the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts return to school in less-than-traditional circumstances, many parents will find themselves scrambling for child care because their children will be studying from home at least part of the time.

Those same parents are surely breathing a sigh of relief after a school committee presentation Thursday. Representatives from five area nonprofits stepped up to offer programs for children during some of the days in which students are scheduled to work remotely. Lack of child care has been one of the main sticking points for parents who wanted the district’s three schools to reopen fully.

Executives from the Flying Cloud Institute, the Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Greenagers, Volunteers in Medicine and Flying Deer Nature Center made a proposal to the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee to establish a program titled “Community Learning in the Berkshires.” CLuB is the preferred acronym. Click here to see the proposal.

See video below of the presentation by CLuB at the Aug. 27 Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee meeting via Zoom. Fast-forward to 33:00 to see the explanation and discussion:

Kate Tucci of Berkshire South explained that a survey performed this spring by the Berkshire County Education Task Force found that half of parents surveyed said “no” or “maybe” when asked if there would be anyone at home to supervise their children during distance learning sessions.

“We are here to provide a sliver of hope to working parents,” Tucci told the approximately 90 participants who had joined via Zoom, an online video conferencing platform.

The group of nonprofits calls itself a “coalition of human service organizations” that had “convened to meet the pressing needs of working families whose children will be educated remotely this school year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“We believe this crisis demands a new way of thinking and collaborating, and an all-hands-on-deck approach to public education,” the group said in its presentation.

The goal is to establish and staff low- or no-cost remote learning sites for students from kindergarten to eighth grade that include full-day supervision, skilled assistance with school-assigned academic work and extensive, daily enrichment. Tucci emphasized that the coalition is not trying to create a “‘less bad’ option to that of staying home alone, but rather engaging, nourishing, rigorous and fun school days for our children.”

Greenagers executive director Will Conklin

Will Conklin, who heads Greenagers, said two sites have been confirmed for the program: the Greenagers’ April Hill Conservation and Education Center in Egremont (formerly the Kellogg Conservation Center) and the Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington. A third (he mentioned Camp Eisner in Great Barrington) is a possibility, though it has not yet been secured.

Conklin said the coalition is looking to accommodate up to six cohorts hosted at each of those two confirmed sites. There could be up to 10 at the larger site if it becomes available.

Both Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire are opening Monday, Sept. 14, with a fully remote program. Then, on Monday, Sept. 28, they are transitioning to a so-called “hybrid model” in which half the student population would be engaged in face-to-face learning on campus with teachers and staff on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the other half reporting for the same on Thursdays and Fridays. No students will be present on Wednesdays, when the custodial staff will perform a deep cleaning of the buildings. The date for a transition for full in-person learning has not been set.

The idea of the CLuB program is to accommodate students on their off days during the hybrid phase. Students should include those who do not have a safe place to engage in distance learning from home, those whose caregivers are frontline workers or teachers, and students who need extra support, but not intensive special education, in order to be successful with distance learning.

“We do not have the capacity to meet the childcare needs of every family,” the proposal states.

Coalition members and collaborating partners will also offer in-person enrichment activities in their fields of expertise: art, science, dance, theater, outdoor skills, nature connection and physical education.

Tucci said the program would adhere to the state regulations set forth for the youth programs that Berkshire South and Greenagers have continued to run during portions of the pandemic. CLuB will consult with the Great Barrington Board of Health, MACONY Pediatrics and coalition member VIM to provide guidance on safety issues. Daily health screenings for staff and students will be mandatory.

Undermountain Elementary School in Sheffield. Photo: David Scribner

“In order to minimize risk, one of our key components of what we’re trying to do is get all of the kids outside for the majority of the day,” Tucci explained.

The proposal said it is hoped that the school districts will “sponsor the project.” School committee member Anne Hutchinson asked where the money would come from to fund the project.

“That’s a good question,” Conklin replied. “We’re hard at it as we speak. We have a fair bit of private philanthropy interested.”

School committee member Rich Dohoney said if the coalition was providing educational services, then the district should pay for them. But Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon urged caution because this will be a “tough fiscal year.”

Conklin added that the coalition partners have “all committed certain levels of funding to get the ball rolling, pivoting certain funds that we already acquired for the fall and/or just making the commitment based on what we see as a real community need.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, is quoted in the presentation as saying of the program, “I’m proud that this is happening in my home district.” Click here to read CLuB’s proposal to Pignatelli. The presentation also quotes an official from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education praising the concept.

“This is the ideal situation we want to see and support,” said Cliff Chuang, a DESE senior associate commissioner for educational options.

Conklin said Pignatelli is looking into sources of state funding. Dillon said he sees opportunities for local philanthropy, along with state and federal funding, including some emergency funding that was allocated to towns that may be underutilized.

“That could be a whole ‘nother avenue to look at, so I think from a financial perspective, we should leave no stone unturned and really work to expand the coalition and build things up,” Dillon said.

“You can be sure that shortly after this conversation, you’ll be hearing further appeals to help support this effort,” added Conklin.

One parent, Annie Alquist, has two children in the district. She wanted to know why it was safe to send children to the CLuB venues but not safe to send them back to school.

Dillon said the hybrid model allows the district to limit the number of students to fewer than half. The lower numbers allows them to be physically distanced so as to limit the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

Flying Cloud Institute executive director Maria Rundle

Maria Rundle, who heads Flying Cloud, an educational institution offering STEAM programs (science, technology, engineering, art and math) and serving over 2,000 youth and local educators annually, said her organization has continued to run programs for much of the summer.

“We have been running all summer using the state’s guidelines for protecting children under the COVID-19 protocol,” Rundle explained.

Ilana Steinhauer, FNP, executive director of Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires. Photo courtesy Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires

VIM executive director Ilana Steinhauer said the goal of opening the first two sites is Monday, Sept. 14, and that Monday, Sept. 28, is the goal for the third site “if it opens.”

There will be a formal application process,” Dillon added. “We have a great team behind this. All these organizations work with the district in regular times, too. It’s a new approach but it’s a continuation of a longstanding partnership.”

“The effort and thought that’s gone into this is inspiring,” Dohoney observed. “The people who … are working on this project are heroes.”

The motion to endorse the proposal passed unanimously. Dillon said more information will be released soon.