As North Fork schools reopen, parents struggle to find childcare

Day care facilities across the East End are bracing for increased demand as schools prepare for a September reopening unlike any other.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that the COVID-19 infection rate is low enough to permit schools to reopen — but how they do so will be up to individual districts.

“I don’t know what [parents] are going to do,” said Tara Kochanskyj, who owns the Bloom Learning Center in Moriches. “It will be a challenge.”

Ms. Kochanskyj recently gained approval from the Riverhead Town Board to bring a second Bloom location to the former Riverhead Country Day School site at Stotzky Park.

In addition to offering traditional day care for children six weeks through 4 years old, Ms. Kochanskyj said she has also sought a license to serve school-aged children in order to assist with remote learning.

“There is a huge need and even with me expanding out into Riverhead, it still isn’t enough even pre-pandemic.”

Tara Kochanskyj

The need for additional child care options is particularly apparent in Riverhead, where public school reopening plans call for a hybrid model of in-person and remote instruction for all students in grades K-12. District officials have said that space limitations, an ongoing concern due to enrollment, will require splitting the student body into cohorts that will attend school on alternate days.

That means elementary students will attend school on either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday and participate in distance learning the other three days of the school week.

Neighboring districts — including Shoreham-Wading River, Mattituck, Southold and Greenport — all plan to offer fully in-person instruction at the elementary level, though some have opted for split sessions at the secondary level.

Ms. Kochanskyj already kept a waiting list for her Moriches location, which draws families from as far east as Mattituck. “Now, the phone is ringing off the hook,” she said Friday. “There is a huge need and even with me expanding out into Riverhead, it still isn’t enough even pre-pandemic.”

Other day care facilities similarly report being inundated with phone calls from parents of elementary students.

Sheldine Bryant, assistant director at Bright & Early Discoveries on Northville Turnpike in Riverhead, estimates receiving over 50 inquiries in the weeks since Riverhead released its reopening plans. They are currently seeking permission from the state Office of Children and Family Services to expand into other floors of their building that aren’t currently used. Ms. Bryant also said they are in the process of hiring additional certified teachers.

Director Jennifer LaMaina said she’d like to work alongside other day care facilities, the school district, the town and other community groups to help meet the need. “If we can coordinate, it would definitely help. This is the time that the community has to work together,” Ms. LaMaina said.

St. David’s School in Riverhead is currently licensed to care for children up to 12 years old, according to director Rose Horton. There are approximately 30 families on a waiting list for school-aged programs that are planned in response to the school’s reopening plans.

Children play together at Bright and Early Discoveries. (Credit: Tara Smith)

Ms. Horton said they are awaiting some further information to be released by the district before finalizing their plans, which she hopes to offer at family-friendly prices. “The community is going through a lot, so we’re looking to help in any way that we can,” she said in an interview Monday.

In addition to Ms. Horton, there are three other state licensed teachers on staff who will be able to facilitate distance learning. “If we all put our heads together, we’ll be able to manage,” she said, adding that classroom space is also being reconfigured and there is a new emphasis on being outdoors whenever possible. 

During a Riverhead Board of Education meeting last Thursday, many parents expressed frustration with the district’s reentry plan.

“You are failing our children and families by placing unfair and inequitable burdens on us in the midst of a global pandemic and significant economic decline,” said John Grodski. “The financial burden of child care will be crippling for many families in our community, but will be suffocating for our poorest families and their children.”

Several other parents expressed similar concern about finding child care, especially if they’re unable to work remotely.

Interim superintendent Christine Tona said the concerns are valid. “The child care issue is a burden for families,” she said. “We wish that was not the case.”

The district is not currently able to offer child care for families due to space, budgetary and staffing issues, Ms. Tona said.

She pointed out that when schools shuttered in March, SCOPE Education Services ran emergency child care programs for essential workers, but said she isn’t sure if they will run similar programs this fall.

Officials at SCOPE did not respond to requests for comment this week.

Social distancing warnings hang on the walls. (Credit: Tara Smith)

As you travel farther east, options become even more limited. North Fork Head Start will reopen for the school year in September, but is unable to provide additional programming for school-aged children and it’s unclear if the North Fork Early Learning Center, currently closed for the summer, will be able to offer programs for school-aged children. 

Judi Fouchet, a licensed family care provider in Southold Town who runs a small in-home day care, said the pandemic is putting a longstanding problem under the spotlight.

Though school isn’t meant to be a day care, Ms. Fouchet, also a member of the Southold Board of Education, said many working parents count on their kids attending school full time. “The dearth of child care out here is huge and if schools don’t open, that just makes it even worse,” she said.

Officials at each child care center said their main goal is to provide for local families during an unprecedented moment.

Riverhead Town officials welcomed the addition of the new Bloom facility. “You’ll have no problem filling chairs … especially now with the COVID situation and with public school being what it is,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard. “There’s definitely going to be a need for child care.” 

As she makes minor renovations to the Stotzky Park facility, Ms. Kochanskyj is also awaiting approvals from OCFS. She is crossing her fingers for an early September opening.

“As a mom myself, it was very difficult for me to homeschool my son,” she said, because she continued working throughout the pandemic.

She envisions that teachers at the center can guide children through their online assignments but also be an outlet for social-emotional health and play. “These kids really need to have the social interaction that’s unfortunately been taken away from them over the last few months,” she said.