Our community is working together on back-to-school issues

Stephen M. Hughes

Aug. 21, 2020:

Stephen M. Hughes, United Way of the Southern Tier President & CEO, shares his thoughts on our community's back-to-school plans:

Across the Southern Tier, parents and caregivers with school-age children are struggling to figure out how they will juggle working and sending their children back to school in just a few weeks.

Many of our school districts cannot accommodate socially-distanced learning five days a week for 100 percent of their students. Instead, students will be in class two days a week — either Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday in most instances — and participate in distance learning three days a week. 

In-school after-care programs that parents have previously turned to are not being offered. That means families will have to provide a setting for learning and supervision at least three days a week while juggling work schedules.

What is a factory worker with school-age children going to do when her children are supposed to be in a virtual classroom and is supposed to be at the plant? How can a hospital nurse be on the job if he cannot secure a childcare slot for his 6-year-old? What about the 70% of school teachers who also have school-age children?   

In Chemung and Steuben counties, questions just like those hang over the heads of more than 21,000 school children.

This is a complex problem without an easy solution but, across our region, non-profit organizations such as United Way of the Southern Tier and Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes, as well as school districts, chambers of commerce, economic development agencies, and scores of volunteers have been working together to help get families the support they will need this fall.

Businesses have been asked to have their impacted employees participate in surveys to better understand the need for childcare. Some businesses are helping their employees form parent care pods — pairing small groups of parents whose children attend the same school or are in the same hybrid class schedule — to share supervision duties in order to minimize overall out-of-work time. 

Large houses of worship with strong Wi-Fi connections are investigating how they can become distance learning hubs where school-age children can participate in their virtual classroom in a safe, supervised environment — with meals provided by the local school district. 

Together, with creativity and flexibility, solutions are coming for parents in need. If you know a parent who is anxious about the upcoming school year, encourage them to call their child’s school, read their district emails and FAQs about returning to school, and to listen to the robo-calls. 

In all the complex challenges of returning to school and work, the one thing each one of us can do is show our appreciation for the many committed professionals working tirelessly behind the scenes to find solutions to support families. From our parents, businesses, educators, labor leaders, and faith communities, we need your very best problem-solving skills and responses to highly stressful conditions. Our children are watching, listening, and deeply impacted by our collective action. 

Stephen M. Hughes is president and CEO of United Way of the Southern Tier. Contact him by email or 607-377-5828.