Some after-school programs want to open their doors to students during remote learning days, but claim the state needs to give them permission and more funding.
The issue is what happens to kids who don't have anywhere to go when classes are online, and may not have an adult who can stay home with them.
"There's no plan for the other three days of the school week, when they're not in school," said Ardith Wieworka, CEO of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, about hybrid learning plans. "There's no plan to try to keep that cohort together in an after-school program. Instead, the kids leave and they scatter to the wind."
An interpretation of state law may be creating a roadblock. A document released Friday by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care said the agency was "aware of the statutory limitations preventing licensed programs from operating while children are attending school."
The law describes after school programs as those that "may operate before and after school and may also operate during school vacation and holidays."
But Wieworka, a lawyer with 38 years experience in early childhood and former state commissioner overseeing child care, said that strict interpretation is "overkill."
"It has to be interpreted in the context that we're in," said Wieworka, noting that the statute does not say anything about a virtual school day. "Lawyers slowing the process down by taking a more than literal interpretation hurts the field."
The legal wrangling may be one of the ways that after-school programs are caught waiting, with weeks before school districts are expected to start classes.
"Districts are looking to community-based providers to help high-needs students during normal school hours. Providers are up to the task but require more guidance from the respective departments, increased knowledge about potential funding opportunities, and greater opportunities for joint planning and resource sharing," several after-school providers wrote in a letter to state education leaders, obtained by WBUR.
The two-page letter lists funding for remote learning they believe should be shared between districts and after-school programs, calls for extra hazard pay for the after-school workers and asks for joint guidance from the two state agencies that oversee education for K-12 schools and for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
"It's one of those things that has been really disappointing," said Ardith Wieworka, CEO of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership. "It does seem that districts are not thinking about what happens to kids when they're doing the remote learning."
She wants to see a cohesive strategy for caring for children every school day — whether students are physically in school buildings or not. She and other after school programs are already seeing increased demand for care. Many have wait lists.
"After school providers are ready to step up and do this job, and they will do it well," said Weiworka. "They just need a little support and some clear guidance and a clear strategy from government. And then they can do it."
Some of the guidance for reopening schools and school-age programs seem to be causing confusion among providers. For example, early education guidance calls for 6 feet of separation between kids and caregivers. But guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary education allows for a minimum of 3 feet, combined with other safety measures.
"All of this lack of coordination puts kids at risk," said Wieworka. "Is it 3 feet or is it 6 feet? If we are basing everything on the science, you would think there'd be the same answer. And right now, there isn't."
It's something the advocacy group Strategies for Children noted in recent testimony before the state board of Early Education and Care.
"If every district is making decisions and making their own plans, if it's not rooted in consistent guidance, it leaves a lot up for interpretation," Amy O'Leary, director of the organization's Early Education for All Campaign, told WBUR in an interview. "We have heard so many stories of people trying to do the right thing and just wanting good, accurate information."
A department of education spokeswoman did not comment, but did say the two agencies — early education and care and elementary and secondary education — meet weekly.
On the funding issues, there could be more details coming this week. In two documents, the department of early education and care said it would pay “full-day subsidies for children enrolled in child care while engaged in virtual learning with a school district.”
But those programs haven't received approval to set up remote learning centers for students. It's a challenge for them to scale up when they don't know whether they'll be able to offer care during the school day, and how many kids they would be allowed to enroll.
"Nobody's going back to work without child care," said state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of the first Hampshire district. "If you want people to be back at work and you want them to be making money and then generating revenue, they're going to need a place for their kids. You have to make that investment. If you don't make that investment, it just gets worse."
Sabadosa said the state has prioritized education funding, citing a level-service budget. She said the federal government really needs to step in and provide more funding so that adults can go back to work and programs can afford to serve more students safely.