Philly learning centers bring working parents both relief and anxiety

Tammy Harrity and other Simpson Recreation Center staffers greet Kyree Robinson and his son Syire. (Emily Rizzo for WHYY)

Tammy Harrity and other Simpson Recreation Center staffers greet Kyree Robinson and his son Syire. (Emily Rizzo for WHYY)

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Kyree Robinson, 28, dropped his son off at the Simpson Recreation Center in Frankford Tuesday morning as an act of faith.

It’s one of the city’s 31 access centers that opened today to supervise K-6 students from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during virtual schooling. The centers are home bases for a new program for the city’s neediest families with working parents who apply for one of 800 slots.

Robinson’s 8-year-old son, Syire, got infected with COVID-19 after he started summer camp in July. Robinson, who was on his way to work at his car wash business on Tuesday, said sending Syire into the virtual learning center, feels like a similar risk.

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Robinson is scared, but he feels stuck. He’s concerned about his child’s health as well as his own, but can’t stay at home anymore to watch Syire, as he did when school began last week.

It’s a “sticky situation,” said Robinson, who is a single father.

The entrance to the Simpson Recreation Center in the Frankford section of Northeast Philadelphia. (Emily Rizzo for WHYY)

The School District of Philadelphia as well as most of the charter schools in the city have opted for all-virtual instruction through at least mid-November. The decision by the district was made after backlash from many parents and teachers who cited health concerns with a plan to do some in-person learning to start the year.

The access centers, organized by Philadelphia’s Office of Children and Families and Parks and Recreation, are based in spaces including rec centers, libraries, Philadelphia Housing Authority sites, and community-based organizations across the city.

The city announced a similar plan in March when coronavirus first shuttered schools, saying children could instead congregate at rec centers during the day. That idea was quickly scuttled after pushback from rec center employees.

Now, city officials say the centers will be safe for students and workers because of strict guidelines including temperature checks, social distancing and mask wearing. All staff members and students are required to wear proper PPE every day, and the rec center will supply them if needed. They also say summer camp programs were “a great success.”

“We ran groups of kids through the rec department and through our department of human services and we didn’t see the safety concerns,” said Cynthia Figueroa, deputy mayor of the Office of Children and Families. “We have to figure out how to navigate these difficult times.”

Figueroa emphasized that the centers are needed to support working parents.

“I’m very excited to be able to do this for the community and kids and families who desperately need as much support just given how complicated things have been through COVID,” she said.

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Norman Hill, 40, felt relief after dropping his son off.

“I feel great to get the kids back to school,” Hill said. “It was hard going to work and doing the stay-at home school, so this is great for me.”

Norman Hill and his son on their way inside of Simpson Recreation Center in the Frankford section of Northeast Philadelphia. (Emily Rizzo for WHYY)

Hill, the sole caregiver for his son, said the access centers feel safer than leaving him with other family members, which he said can be more “unpredictable” because “you don’t know if somebody is going to come over and spread anything.”

Simpson Rec Center supervisor Tammy Harrity said health and safety has always been one of her main concerns. She said enrollment at the center will be capped at 21 students, allowing enough space to keep everyone 6 feet apart.

“I trust everyone here,” said Harrity of her staff.

While she feels excited, Harrity is a bit nervous too. She said it’s been challenging for staffers to figure out their roles in assisting children through their virtual learning.

The rec center is usually a place for after school programs and sports leagues. Now, it’s set up to emulate a classroom. There is a black board at the front of the room, and desks where students will complete their work. Students are expected to bring their own laptops, which were provided for free by the district over the summer, but the center will give three free meals each day.

“This is a good role,” Harrity said. “Making sure children are getting educated is a huge role.”

Harrity said they will also ensure students get “brain breaks,” socially-distanced physical activity to release energy throughout the day.

When asked how the physical set up of rec center classrooms will be safer for staff and students than ordinary classrooms, Harrity said, “I don’t know how to answer that,” but emphasized the frequency that hands and surfaces would be sanitized.

Another 46 access centers are scheduled to open on Sept. 21, expanding the number of students who can register to nearly 2,200.

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