When the Worcester school committee decided all 25,000 district students would learn remotely through mid-November, phones at the YMCA started ringing.
But the six YMCA of Central Massachusetts locations all have wait lists, totaling 100 kids.
"Parents are very, very concerned," said David Connell, president and CEO of the YMCA of Central Massachusetts. "They are now needing to go back to work ... and wondering where would they put their children?"
YMCAs across Massachusetts are seeing increased requests for child care services. Many parents who wouldn't typically need full-day care during the school year suddenly need it as their districts opt for a remote start or a hybrid model where students are assigned certain days to be in school and other days to learn remotely.
But with the increased demand, there are also new coronavirus precautions which means there are fewer seats available for kids.
"There's a level of heightened anxiety around each parent and caretaker, because the space that we would normally have is now being cut in half," said Connell, noting that some locations are only able to operate at 40% capacity. That means that some families served before the pandemic are now on wait lists.
State regulators have limited the number of children allowed in a given space for providers — like the YMCA — among other health precautions. The YMCA is hoping the state will quickly approve of new spaces to use for child care so the can serve more of those families.
"We are reconfiguring our branches so that we can be make it available for child care," Connell said. "But it's because this is a true response that is needed to help people get back to work, and also making young people feel safe and families feel it's safe when they leave their homes every given day."
It's yet another shift the branches are making to try to meet the needs of the community during the pandemic. Early on, the YMCAs stepped up food distribution and started providing emergency child care for first responders' families. With the new school year weeks away, Connell believes the YMCA has a critical role to play in helping provide school-age kids a safe space if classrooms remain closed or the days are restricted.
"This would be the most challenging times that we certainly have seen," said Connell of his 12 years with the YMCA. "We have never hit all of these parameters [at once], especially for the vulnerable populations: you have issues around feeding, issues around child care, issues around health, issues around social economical issues. And then we also had discussions and issues around racial equity."
"There's a level of heightened anxiety around each parent and caretaker, because the space that we would normally have is now being cut in half."David Connell, president and CEO of the YMCA of Central Massachusetts
The pandemic has also put financial pressures on the YMCA. Like other fitness centers, the Ys had to close their gyms and pools during the spring. That translated into a $2.1 million hit in membership fees. About 43% of the YMCA of Central Massachusetts revenue relies on those memberships. Those dollars help underwrite the YMCA's other services and care for vulnerable youth.
"We have to keep providing that service, otherwise, we won't be able to have a building to help support our young people," said Connell. "So one of our challenges is that that we continue to make this work."
It's why Connell and other YMCA regional presidents are hoping the state and federal government will step up financial aid.
"There could be a temptation to just take all of the individuals who can pay at full-price or beyond to fill those [available] slots," said Connell. "And it would mean the most marginalized populations will not get service. And that's really one of the great dangers that's out there."
While the YMCA and other nonprofits try to remain true to their missions, they are also trying to figure out how to make it work financially so they can continue to serve the youth who need it most.