The city is expanding the categories of New Yorkers who can send their children to city-run Regional Enrichment Centers that provide childcare for essential workers. Eligible employees now include restaurant, food, takeout and delivery workers, and residential and commercial building staff, the Department of Education announced Friday.
The move comes as the total number of RECs are being reduced because demand has been less than anticipated.
Starting this week, the DOE will operate 57 RECs in the city which can accomodate up to 23,000 kids. There are 18 in Brooklyn, 11 in the Bronx, 15 in Queens, ten in Manhattan and three in Staten Island.
The REC program was rolled out rapidly after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was closing schools March 15th to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Initially 93 sites were opened, and the DOE cut that number to 70 sites on March 30th.
The DOE said more than 10,300 families have contacted the city to request a seat and to date, about 8,100 families have used the RECs, though the daily number fluctuates because the centers are drop-in enrollment.
“Those on the frontlines of our COVID-19 response effort have to juggle keeping our city safe with caring for their own families, and our Regional Enrichment Centers exist to help shoulder some of this responsibility. We are incredibly grateful to the volunteers and staff of our REC sites who have remained flexible and dedicated throughout this ever-changing situation," said Katie O'Hanlon, spokesperson for the DOE, in an email.
When the RECs opened, 5,000 DOE volunteers answered a call for help by Chancellor Richard Carranza. Volunteers are drawing their normal salaries during the assignments, the DOE said. The RECs are staffed by about 1,500 workers, 350 custodial staff, and 500 food service workers.
The DOE offered to allow two REC site supervisors to speak to Gothamist about the day-to-day operations at the centers.
Aaron Schwartz's usual full-time job is working for the DOE as a school improvement coach supporting the system's transfer schools, but currently he is an REC site supervisor at the Catherine and Count Basie Middle School near Springfield Gardens, Queens.
He said every morning the custodians begin cleaning the facilities around 5:30 a.m. and staff begin coming in around 6:30 a.m. The first order of business for every employee: "Everybody gets their temperature taken," Schwartz said. "Every surface in my building is cleaned with every 25 minutes, all the common halls. They just rotate all day long."
The centers serve a range of children as young as 4-years-old up to high school students, and Schwartz said the main goal is to support students in remote learning programs.
"We have a very strict learning schedule here," he said. "We have three remote learning blocks. We're not the primary teachers at the RECs...But we're educators and it's not about babysitting, but it's about supporting the student."
An assistant principal at John Dewey High School in Gravesend, Justine Bretagna is now also a site supervisor at the REC located at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brighton Beach, where she oversees the afternoon activities.
"We tried to be very flexible with the kids," she said. "They're doing the remote learning most of the day. But, you know, at one point, it stops and they might take some naps, and then we move into art, music, PE. So I'm actually here for the fun portion of the day when they get to draw and they go to run around, and we have PE coaches that come in every day."
Bretagna said that although the kids are not able to use the playground, they're still able to get plenty of physical activity.
"They're outside, but there's no basketball, nothing that would cause contact. So there's no sweaty sports where they're close to each other. We're really encouraging social distancing. So the PE teachers are doing a lot of like, Red Light Green Light [games]."
Some of the challenges have been logistical—for example, the middle school campus didn't have any books suitable for younger kids, Schwartz said.
"So the teachers and and the community in the area, we got a book drive, and we got over 350 books and they were all sanitized properly. And we created a lending library, where it's part of our routine, the kids can come down and take books. If the kid falls in love with a book, good for them and they can take it home and keep it for their own," he said.
The fluctuations in enrollment is part of the flexibility of the program, Schwartz said.
"We're also emergency childcare for first responders who might have on any particular day get called in on a different shift. And they know that we're here for them. So we have students that we see just once or twice or three times a week," Schwartz said.
The enrollment changes also reflect the turmoil of increasing unemployment, Bretagna said.
"We also have seen parents that have been getting laid off. And these were our essential workers, and some of them are single parents," Bretagna said. "One mother said, 'I'm very scared. I think I'm in danger of losing my job.' She had three kids here, and then we never saw the three kids again. So there's a lot of fluctuation."
Bretagna and Schwartz both said working at the RECs have been a way for them to help the city in a time of crisis.
For Bretagna, her husband was seriously ill and hospitalized last month with what she believes was COVID-19, though tests came back negative. He's since recovered. "I want to give back to nurses and doctors because of what happened to him, because our three very, very small children would have been devastated" if he died, Bretagna said.
"I think that this is one of the most amazing programs that we've ever done. The amount of time and energy...and that volunteer people who are working around the clock have come together has been astounding. It's not an easy decision for anyone to make, to volunteer at the RECs," Schwartz said. "Many of my staff have their regular teaching day jobs and responsibilities and come in afterwards. And we all have families."
Schwartz added, "You know, I'll speak for myself. I have four children and a wife, and the decision to do this every day and to keep the hours that we keep is hard, and we don't do it cavalierly. But we do it because the city is important to us and the education of our children are important to us. We just feel every last person in this REC...feels an obligation and a duty and and truly an honor to serve the families in New York."