Child care options limited amid school cancellations in Iowa

Area child care services try to accommodate needs

Published: January 7 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:43 am in

The polar vortex has resulted in subzero temperatures and two days of school closures for many corridor districts.

That also means a headache for area parents like Rachelle Deal, whose 8-year-old son is a third-grader at Wright Elementary School in the Cedar Rapids Community School District. He attends before- and after-school day care at the school through the district’s Five Seasons Learning Centers.

“My son isn't old enough to stay home alone, my husband works, family is working as well. We just moved into a new house, so we don't have any close high school neighbors that we can use quite yet,” Deal wrote in an email to The Gazette. “This all does cause a huge struggle for working families.”

This is the first year Cedar Rapids Metro YMCA and Waypoint child-care programs that operate within district buildings suspend services in tandem with school closures due to inclement weather. Where families used to be able to rely on these programs to supervise children during unscheduled school dismissals, that isn't the case this year.

That move is an extension of a practice already underway for the district’s Five Seasons child cares and the Boys and Girls Club of Cedar Rapids and has been for four years.

“We feel it’s not safe for kids to get in and out. Our buildings are warm but not as warm as we’d like them to be,” said Val Dolezal, executive director of prekindergarten through eighth grade for the Cedar Rapids district, of the practice. “It was really more about snow and ice when we can’t get driveways plowed and the sidewalks (cleared).”

Dolezal said the decision, which parents were notified of through correspondence in fall 2013, was actually made both with safety in mind and to reduce confusion for parents who often called the programs’ staff members on the mornings of school delays and cancellations to find out whether or not services would still be available.

“At that point I got some questions and some concerns from a few parents. They were upset,” Dolezal said. “I told them it was about safety for students and staff. … We aren’t able to get all of our 21 elementaries plowed and shoveled in time to be ready … Most of our programs start at 6 or 6:30 (a.m.) That is the issue. We don’t have custodial staff (who) come in until 6 a.m.”

The policy change has not accompanied a change in fee structure for the Five Seasons program, so parents do not receive a credit or reduced fee for days when services are suspended due to weather.

“It used to be OK if it was only 1-2 days a year for when the road conditions were really bad, however, now we don't have coverage at all when school is closed due to weather. I will need to pay a babysitter for each of these days, or miss work. So I am paying twice,” wrote Deal, who indicated that she is exploring alternative child care options for the 2014-15 school year. “My daycare is already one of my most costly monthly expenses, and now it covers less.”

St. Joseph Catholic School in Marion, part of the Xavier Catholic Schools, offers child care for 3- to 5-year-olds as well as students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Its normal hours are 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. but the weather on Monday moved Principal Cathy Walz to cancel classes but change the child care schedule to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“It works well for our school and day care with our sizes and our community to be able to differentiate between the two,” she said. “It is a benefit to our parents and our goal is to serve them. It’s a benefit to them if we can be here to be able to be here.”

Lu Wherry, director of the child care, reports to Walz who makes the final decision. She said three factors go into determining services: can staff members get to the center, are indoor systems working well enough to have a “successful day” and what is the quality of the area outside the building.

“We made sure we would have staff available for those utilizing day care at the same time making sure we could take care of any building issues,” said Walz of the decision to have a shortened schedule on Monday.

At St. Matthew Early Childhood Center, located in Cedar Rapids and also part of the Xavier Catholic Schools system, hours remained the same on Monday despite St. Matthew’s Elementary School not having classes that day due to weather.

Director Becky Rasmussen made the decision to keep the center, which serves infants through fifth-graders, open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday.

“We serve those working families so it’s important that we maintain our hours of service so that they can do theirs,” she said. “On a day like this, if we can maintain our staff ratios, we’re going to do our best to stay open.”

St. Matthew, like Five Seasons, does not offer any sort of credit or fee reduction due to inclement weather closures. However, Rasmussen said the center has not had to suspend services due to weather this year.

On Monday, Rasmussen noted that only about half of the estimated 110 students who normally attend the center were present. By the time the doors opened at 6 a.m., the walkways had been shoveled and maintenance staff had walked through the facility to ensure heating and plumbing systems were operating properly.

Stephanie Leuck’s twin 6-year-old sons and their toddler sister were three of St. Matthew Early Childhood Center’s charges on Monday. Leuck, who lives in Marion and is an account executive at Holmes Murphy in Cedar Rapids, said the center’s status was one of the first things she checked Monday morning.

In the past, when the center has closed, either she or her husband takes the day off to stay home with their children or the two of them each take a half day to split the child-care duties.

“We do appreciate that they’re open,” Leuck said of herself and her husband, who also works. “Their philosophy on the weather we’ve very much appreciated. With working parents, it’s very difficult when weather hands you those unexpected things and you have to be somewhere, at work, not knowing how to juggle that.”

Fate was kind to Deal on Monday, because her husband was able to watch her son when school was canceled. But the news of Tuesday's class cancellation wasn't so welcome.

"My husband and relatives all work (that day)," she wrote, "so it looks like I will be taking a day off from work or finding a backup babysitter."

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