Most Memphis students are starting the school year online. But from where?

A child in a mask at a day care center
Churches, day care providers, and other places hope to provide supervision while students log on to online learning as their parents are at work. (FatCamera / Getty Images)

If Jessica Chambers’ high schooler is going to excel with online classes, he’s going to need adult supervision, she says. He’s old enough to stay home by himself, but he has a disorder that hinders his ability to concentrate for long periods of time. 

Plus, her other son is entering kindergarten and needs extra help to log in and acclimate to his first-ever school experience. Even on the days she can stay home, she doesn’t think she’ll be of much help. 

“I’m terrible with computers,” Chambers said. 

Churches, day care providers, and other places are scrambling for state permission or funding to provide schoolchildren supervision and space to log on to online learning during the day.

Shelby County Schools, which educates most students in Memphis, is starting the 2020-21 school year online Aug. 31 to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Shelby County is one of several places on the White House’s “red zone” watchlist with  troubling rises in cases. 

Working parents who cannot stay home during the day while their students are logging in to class are trying to figure out what to do. Some options have emerged, but advocates say many more are needed. 

The YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South now offers free child care for essential workers with space for about 3,800 children at YMCA centers, churches — and even a school — funded with state emergency monies. But state funding for the program expires Aug. 21. Brian McLaughlin, the YMCA’s chief operating officer, said they are awaiting word on whether the state will extend the program through December. 

“We realized essential workers need it now more than ever,” he said, “and people who are working and just need options.” 

For parents needing child care who are not considered essential employees, the YMCA and Shelby County Schools are working to identify more sites where students in groups under 10 can gather to log into online classes while their parents are working.

The goal is to provide additional space for 10,000 students across the county, McLaughlin said. Together, the two programs would accommodate about 15% of the district’s 95,000 students. The district and YMCA expect to announce details next week. 

In the meantime, churches are working to expand their internet bandwidth in preparation and YMCA staff are training alongside parents in videoconferencing skills so they can support students, McLaughlin said. 

In addition, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said last week he would offer space for children of the county’s 4,800 employees to hop online for school. 

But licensed day cares — a common option for working parents — face an additional hurdle to host students. Day cares must apply for a state exemption to accommodate school-age children during school hours. Even though the day care providers wouldn’t be teaching, they must prove to the Tennessee Department of Human Services that the children will be doing schoolwork.

Of 107 child care agencies that have applied for such exemptions, the state has approved 73, according to an email from a department representative this week.

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