ELLSWORTH — Feeling squeezed by child-care costs is common among working parents of very young children. So, when the kids reach school age, the burden of finding childcare and shouldering costs that often cut deeply into the average weekly paycheck is lifted.
But not in COVID-19 times and not for all Ellsworth parents. With the school district pivoting to a hybrid blend of remote and in-person learning, students are in school every other day, leaving working parents with few options on the other days.
Enter the Down East Family YMCA, which partnered with the Ellsworth schools to provide a remote learning center at the Moore Community Center. The program started up in mid-September and runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for kindergartners through eighth-graders. The cost is $40 per day, including after-school care. There is also a Bucksport location.
The YMCA worked with qualifying families to secure state reimbursement and YMCA scholarships, as available, to help defray costs for some families. Then, shortly after the program’s start, it became fully funded by federal coronavirus relief funds (CRF). At that point, enrollment increased by about one-third and now ranges from 20 to 40 students, depending on the day. The Y increased its staff by six full-time positions to accommodate the pandemic protocols and remote learning.
“The [CRF] funding was just a wonderful thing so parents wouldn’t have to pay out of their pockets for this remote care,” Down East Family YMCA Executive Director Peter Farragher said.
That funding was critical for at least one Ellsworth parent, the daughter of the Y’s Moore Center Director of Food Service Crystal Folette.
“My daughter works at a minimum wage job,” Folette said. “She needs to work to provide for her family and struggles to do this. Without the remote care, she would be unable to work. Without the funding, she would have to pay for it out of pocket, which would put a huge dent in her already too small paycheck.”
The CRF funds are set to expire on Dec. 30, and while Ellsworth School Department Superintendent Dan Higgins said he is hopeful that a new relief funding bill will come through, parents will have to arrange payments starting in January.
“The grant has provided economic relief for [working] families that didn’t have a choice,” said Shauna Esposito-Caldwell, director of operations at the Moore Community Center.
On a recent morning, masked students were scattered across the third-floor classrooms, seated at desks placed far apart. Some had worksheets to complete, others tapped on iPads, and nearly all fidgeted in their seats as watery sunlight filled the rooms. But they are in school even if they’re not in the classroom or school they are used to.
“Some kids really struggle to get their schoolwork done,” Esposito-Caldwell said. “Kids are feeling the anxiety and stresses and the strangeness of the time.” Esposito-Caldwell and School Age Coordinator Alicia Grindle credit Ellsworth teachers with working hand-in-glove with Y staff on the remote learning academics.
“It’s a new world for a lot of people,” Farragher said. “It’s tough. Parents need to work.”