August 25, 2020
Dear Superintendent Ray and Shelby County Schools Board,
Four weeks ago, Superintendent Joris Ray announced that Shelby County Schools would be starting school virtually. While we commend that the safety of students, teachers, and community members is being prioritized, we are writing to you because we believe that there has not been an explicit pathway for parents to navigate finding childcare support. As you know, our district serves over 100,000 students and families, yet there has been no explicit information provided about how the district plans to support all parents inevitably affected with this ongoing challenge. After the initial announcement about virtual learning, a graphic was shared that included 33 community partner childcare sites, yet there were very limited spots available at each with no information on the different processes like explaining how to sign up, costs, and who would be watching students at those respective sites.
Through speaking with community members and even teachers with children in Shelby County Schools, it is very clear that the cost of childcare will be a huge burden to many families on top of the challenges already created by the global crisis. We appreciate that the district has been working on a partnership with the YMCA, and we are aware that the YMCA has stated that they had the capacity to serve the needs of 10,000 students. However, considering that approximately 23% of SCS families reported that they preferred in-person learning on the summer survey and around 38% could have defaulted to in-person, there could be about 35,000 students who still need care not even considering those families who were making arrangements for children while opting into virtual instruction. The average cost of childcare in Memphis, TN, is $270.75/week or $1,083/month per child. This can be a great financial burden for families considering that, according to the US Census data, the median household income in Memphis is $39,108 (monthly income being $3,259). One SCS teacher who is struggling to find affordable childcare said, “I want everyone to be safe and healthy, first and foremost. But it makes it extremely hard for our family. My husband can’t work remotely. It will be very, very difficult for me to manage multiple children and effectively teach.”
While the partnership with the YMCA and promoting other community organizations is valuable, we also recognize that working with community sites might not be enough to address the enormous childcare needs. Currently, the Shelby County government is setting up socially distanced learning pods for their employees’ children. These pods include a teacher or childcare provider with the expectation to assist students with technology, monitor breaks, and serve lunch among other duties. This could be a realistic model for how SCS could set up their own sites. Since SCS had already begun preparation of its own facilities for in-person learning along with collection of the necessary PPE and cleaning materials, we wonder if those efforts and resources could be retasked to expanding childcare capacity across the city and county. It seems that SCS has the greatest capacity in facilities and personnel to assist in addressing these needs, and additional resources needed could come from savings from buildings not being open across the county and requests to the county for CARES Act Funds in support of childcare. Our hope is that SCS could significantly expand free childcare options across different neighborhoods to match the needs of each community.
With the urgency of the school year beginning soon, we recognize that questions about childcare must be answered as soon as possible. Families need affordable and accessible childcare support, and are left with concerns as they prepare for this year. Additionally, there are also many teachers with their own children who are looking for clarity on what supports will be provided for them as they are forced to balance both facilitating instruction and taking care of their own children at home. Many teachers we have heard from are struggling to identify childcare and the funds to pay for it. We believe that our teachers deserve support to ensure that they have less to worry about for their own children as they give their time and talent to effectively teach our children either from school or their home.
Ultimately, we are requesting clarity and greater support for families navigating childcare needs. In addition, we would like to know whether the district will take the initiative to provide its own childcare learning sites to meet the unique needs the COVID-19 pandemic has created? We look forward to your response.