Baby kid

Joshua checks out a visitor to the Keene Family YMCA’s Childcare Services infant room Wednesday as assistant teacher Destiny Malcolm comforts another youngster.

As schools throughout the Monadnock Region prepare to reopen under hybrid models that have kids learning from home a few days a week, local child care providers say they’re experiencing an increase in demand so parents can return to work.

“Back when COVID hit, we followed the guidelines given then and limited our child care only to essential workers. And that’s gradually been ramping back up as that definition of an essential worker has grown, and as restrictions on stay-at-home orders have lightened,” said Dan Smith, CEO of the Keene Family YMCA. “... Now, with the school model, we’ve heard all kinds of inquiries and noise around how the hybrid school model affects everyone in our community, and a need for child care around that.”

The vast majority of public school districts in the Monadnock Region plan to begin the new academic year with a mix of in-person and remote learning to help limit the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally under these hybrid reopening models, schools will divide students into two groups, which will alternate days of in-school instruction with days of remote learning.

In response, the YMCA is working to launch a child care option for kids up to 6th grade, in addition to its existing preschool programs. The Y previously offered before- and after-school programs for older children, but this new option would allow kids to be under the organization’s care from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on days when they are learning remotely, and come to programs after school until 5 p.m. on days when they are in school, Smith said.

In order to do this, the YMCA plans to hire up to 30 new child care professionals, and is seeking businesses and other organizations with extra space to offer rooms for classrooms that can accommodate 10 to 15 students. The Y is currently working with six organizations, including Keene Church of the Nazarene and Next Level Church, to provide additional classrooms, Smith said.

“I’m confident that we’re going to get at least some spots available for school-aged child care,” he said. “It’s unclear yet whether that’s going to be a rather small number of, say, 20, or be able to hopefully reach 100 or more.”

Smith added that the YMCA should have a clearer picture on its child care capacity early next week, and that the organization likely will continue to add spots in child care programs even after the school year starts.

Several other child care facilities throughout the area don’t provide programs for school-aged kids, but are still getting more calls than normal from parents looking for child care.

“We certainly are getting lots of calls, and people are desperate to find places,” Suelaine Poling, executive director of the Keene Day Care Center, said. “And there really aren’t very many places, so that is a struggle for families.”

The Winchester Learning Center this year will allow kindergarteners to come back to the center on days when they are not in school at Winchester Elementary School, Executive Director Roberta Royce said.

“Normally we don’t, but because they’re only going to school two days a week, we’re letting parents keep them here the other times that they’re not at school, just to make sure they’re getting the service they need, and parents can continue to work,” Royce said.

Smith added that YMCA staff members themselves are working to find child care in order to remain on the job.

“We know we have staff within our own building, who, their ability to work for us is going to be contingent on finding that answer, and we know that employers across our entire area are facing that same issue with their staff,” Smith said. “And we’re hopeful we can get something launched before parents need to pull the nuclear option where they decide they can’t work and have to stay home and quit their job.”

Like schools, these child care facilities also plan to impose a variety of health and safety measures designed to mitigate the risk of COVID-19. The Winchester Learning Center, for example, is moving as much of its program as possible outside, and during nap time, kids will rest at least 6 feet apart, Royce said. Children at the YMCA programs will be required to wear face coverings, Smith said, and the number of students allowed in a specific classroom will be limited so they can maintain physical distancing.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.