Francine Kasongo and her three children, from left: Alcina, Ariel and Andrea
When COVID-19 closed schools, Burlington parent Francine Kasongo, a nursing aide at the University of Vermont Medical Center, hired a woman she knows through her church to care for her three children in her home, five days a week.
Lauren Dewey brings her children — ages 3, 6 and 7 — to a school-based program in Burlington three days a week, where they have a designated caregiver and classroom, and don’t mingle with other kids. Dewey’s husband is an emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Medical Center, and he works in the hospital’s newly created COVID response unit.
These childcare arrangements are possible because of a unique program the Burlington School District designed to provide free, state-funded childcare for families with essential workers.
The district’s response was tailored to the needs of the community, Superintendent Yaw Obeng said. When schools statewide closed in mid-March, the district sent out a survey to assess how many families required childcare. Then a team — which included director of expanded learning opportunities Christy Gallese and assistant director of curriculum Victor Prussack — began contacting those parents.
Some said they weren’t comfortable sending their kids into a school building or had work hours that weren’t conducive to a school-based program. That led the district to develop a two-pronged approach: Parents could choose between school-based or in-home care for their prekindergarten to fifth-grade children.
The school district submitted a proposal to the state, Prussack said, which was approved following a call with Education Secretary Dan French. The program is scheduled to run through June 12, though the district is currently reviewing the state’s new childcare guidance to consider how it impacts the programs. Superintendent Obeng said that care could continue during the summer months if the district is able to secure funding.
There are currently 19 families — with a total of 30 children — using the Burlington School District’s in-home childcare option. Each week, families send the district an invoice that includes the number of hours of care their children have received, along with the hourly rate for their caregiver. The school district will reimburse up to 40 hours a week of childcare, with a cap of $625. Families may pay caregivers up to $25 an hour. The school district, in turn, is reimbursed by the state.
Prussack said that families have expressed their appreciation for having the option of in-home childcare. “We’ve had people crying on the phone, like literally sobbing, going ‘You have no idea the relief this is to me,’” he said.
Kasongo said the in-home option saves her the time of dropping off and picking up her children. She also feels more comfortable having her kids at home right now. “She is doing great with the kids,” Kasongo said of her caregiver, “and my kids love and enjoy being with her.”
Courtesy of Francine Kasongo
Andrea, Alcina and Ariel
Fourteen children from eight Burlington families use the district’s school-based childcare program, which runs Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s staffed by 10 childcare providers, a combination of afterschool staff and paraeducators.
The Vermont Department of Health guidance states that no more than 10 individuals, including teachers, should be in a classroom. However, the Burlington School District made the decision to group students in significantly smaller “family cohorts” for the safety of staff and students, Superintendent Obeng explained.
One caregiver is assigned to each family — regardless of whether there is just one child or multiple siblings. Each small group stays in a designated classroom with its own bathroom and a door to the outside so that students don’t have to walk through the hallways.
Parents remain in their vehicles during drop-off and pickup, and each child must undergo a health screening and a parent-administered temperature check before coming into the building. Staff are required to wear masks.
Students follow a daily schedule, Gallese said, with blocks of time for reading, STEM activities, and arts and crafts. Caregivers can also help students with online assignments from their classroom teachers. Outdoor time is staggered, and each family unit is assigned to their own part of the playground.
Dewey — who directs youth and family services for Connecting Cultures, a program that provides psychology and social work services for refugees, asylum seekers and New Americans — said the family opted for the school-based program for a number of reasons.
“It sounded more fun for the kids to be able to get out of the house three mornings a week and be in a school environment,” she wrote by email. Having the kids at school also enables her husband to sleep during the day, after his overnight shifts at the hospital.
She said her family has been pleased with the care her children have received.
“Staff put us all at ease with their warmth, energy and professionalism,” she wrote.
The program has freed her and her husband to focus on their work, while the children get help with their schoolwork and are given meals. And her kids are happy.
“They love [childcare providers] Mikaela and Carl, the novelty of it all, and the individual attention they get,” wrote Dewey. “It seems like they understand and are excited by what a unique situation they are in to be able to attend a ‘special school’ during this time.”