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Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin plans to expand services this fall

The past few months have provided a steady drumbeat of bad news and dire predicaments for Sonoma County parents: closed campuses, bored and anxious children, reduced child care slots, stretched budgets and the constant push-pull between earning money and supervising the kids, with no end in sight.

The Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin believes it can provide a sliver of relief. The organization is working with a dozen school districts to greatly expand access this fall, turning its traditional after-school care into a full-day program.

The Boys & Girls Club seeks to implement the plan at as many as 12 existing club sites in Santa Rosa, Windsor, Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Healdsburg, Guerneville and Cloverdale. Starting Aug. 17, the day classes begin in most districts, those centers will be open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., giving school-aged students (5 through high school graduation) a place to log into online instruction, do homework and interact with peers.

Parents can learn more and sign up for priority enrollment at bgcsonoma-marin.org/fall2020.

By the club’s most recent estimate, it will be able to serve 752 Sonoma County children through the program. That’s a small portion of the local kids who are in danger of being untethered this fall. But for the families able to reserve places, it will be a blessing. Many have come to regard the Boys & Girls Club as a safe space for the children of working parents, and the need has never been greater.

That’s certainly true for someone like Erika, a single mother who lives in Petaluma. She requested her last name be withheld to protect her privacy because she works in a hospital emergency room and as a GI nurse at Kaiser. All told, she’s been working a lot of 12-hour days and six-day weeks.

Erika has been sending her 6-year-old son to the Boys & Girls Club site at Lucchesi Park this summer, and hopes to take advantage this fall, too.

“I don’t really have any other alternatives,” she said. “There’s no distance learning for single parents.”

Erika is impressed by the club’s safety protocols during summer camp, and its ability to make the kids feel a sense of normalcy. “This is the first time my child has ever asked to go to camp,” she said. “Ever. What a relief. I can leave him there and worry about my job instead of about him.”

Simply providing a physical place to gather under adult supervision is important enough right now.

“The kids we’ll serve, many don’t have adequate Wi-Fi at home, or adequate, quiet space to study,” said Jennifer Weiss, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin.

Some might not have an adequate diet, either. Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin has always provided meals and snacks. That will continue in some form this fall.

The Boys & Girls Club strategy goes far beyond babysitting. Knowing many households are struggling with the distance learning model, especially those with younger kids, the organization is working closely with school districts to tailor instruction. Club staff will train alongside teachers over the next two weeks, getting up to speed on both the online platforms being used and the specific curricula of the various districts and grade levels.

Clearly, the new system requires more oversight at the clubs. That means a higher staff-to-child ratio. On the other hand, the number of sites across the two counties is shrinking from 42 to 12.

“So we need more staff at each, but we’re collapsing the number of them,” said Michelle Edwards, Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin executive vice president. “So we feel we’re well positioned for this transition.”

Still, the challenges are sizable. The sites will welcome students from across towns and neighborhoods, regardless of school affiliation or age. In effect, a club could have a 12-child pod show up for lessons on a given day, none of them classmates, none of them working on the same projects, or even on the same schedule.

Edwards said the Boys & Girls Club is implementing a completely different model than the one it set out to design in June. And it may change again, said Jeremy Decker, superintendent of Windsor Unified School District.

“You always have to pivot, right?” said Decker, who has worked with the nonprofit for years. “We’re gonna think we have a great plan, and we’re gonna institute that plan. But as we’re going, we’re probably gonna realize that there will need to be minor tweaks.”

Like just about every branch of child care and education in America, the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin has been greatly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Individual club sites began to reopen soon after Sonoma County’s original stay-at-home order in mid-March, first for the children of essential workers, using state funds funneled through the county. The organization gradually began to open slots to other working parents.

But government health guidelines mandated smaller groups. The clubs have been hosting kids in pods of 12. Under normal circumstances, the Sonoma-Marin group serves about 1,500 children per day in its summer program. It has been able to accommodate 366 this year.

The reduced enrollment, coupled with the need for normal staffing levels in the face of heightened sanitization needs and other safety protocols, has forced the local Boys & Girls Club to raise its fees. The summer program has gone from $75 per week to $225 per week, per child. The organization offers substantial scholarship money, but not everyone qualifies, and not everyone could find a slot this year. So some deserving families have been left out.

“The hardest part was the individual conversations we had with club families. Around the ‘why,’ ” Edwards said. “We still subsidize pretty significantly to keep it at that.”

The cost for the expanded fall program will be $225 per week for care that runs until 3 p.m., which parallels the traditional school schedule. Families can pay an additional $75 per week for children to stay until 5:30 p.m.

It’s an ambitious goal hatched in response to a drastic moment in child care, but Edwards sounded more enthusiastic than overwhelmed.

“I will say our team is well versed in meeting the needs of kids, whether those needs be academic, social or emotional,” she said. “And this is one layer on top of that.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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