As online learning continues in Tennessee, coronavirus relief money renews free child care for essential workers

A Shelby County Schools student gets assistance from a staffer as he works remotely from the YMCA’s virtual learning center in Cordova on the first day of school.
A Shelby County Schools student gets assistance from a staffer as he works remotely from the YMCA’s virtual learning center in Cordova on the first day of school. (Jacinthia Jones / Chalkbeat)

Tennessee essential workers will continue to have access to free child care for their children  who are learning remotely. 

The new federal coronavirus relief bill will cover the cost of supervising children in virtual learning centers through the end of March. The bill, signed four days before the program was scheduled to end on Dec. 31, is especially important for parents of students in Shelby County Schools. The state’s largest district doesn’t plan to reopen classrooms until at least Feb. 8

Students resumed gathering in groups at virtual learning centers on Monday to log into their online classes, including those run by the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South. Brian McLaughlin, the YMCA’s chief operating officer, said the bill’s approval produced a “sigh of relief” among staff and families who were waiting to see if funding would dry up

Within days after the bill was signed by President Donald Trump, the YMCA blitzed participating families with emails and social media messages to deliver the good news that virtual learning centers would continue. 

“This funding was so critical,” McLaughlin said. “There really aren’t any other options available right now.”

Parents who are eligible for the program include employees at schools, airports, grocery stores, funeral homes, restaurants, hospitals, and more. Essential workers tend to have lower wages and less flexible job hours, making child care during remote learning both critical and harder to pay for.

This is the second time the state has extended its child care assistance program that began in April. As of Nov. 30, the state spent approximately $110 million for about 42,000 children statewide, including about 6,500 children in Shelby County. For this round, the state will pull from federal coronavirus relief funds for the program based on what’s needed.

The Tennessee Department of Human Services pays licensed child care centers the full cost of child supervision for parents who are essential workers. Tony Mathews, the department’s interim commissioner, said families still face “extraordinary circumstances” because of the pandemic. 

“Our goal is to support parents so they can continue focusing on the ever-evolving needs of their community,” Mathews said in a statement.

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