Gov. Gavin Newsom in July ordered all of the state’s school campuses to remain closed in counties where COVID-19 case rates remained too high, according to the state’s criteria.
That list included Riverside County—and as of our press deadline, almost all local schools remained closed for in-person instruction.
“We fully anticipated re-opening in the first week of July at all of our facilities,” said Desert Recreation District General Manager Kevin Kalman during a recent phone interview. “Then Riverside County had its infection rates start rising again. So what we had geared up for, and had been prepping our team for, all changed overnight. This ED-REC/Connect (ERC) program became the best activity we could think of to be truly relevant and helpful in this time. This pandemic is everybody’s problem—and our goal is to be part of the solution.”
Since mid-August, the ERC has sponsored well-equipped, supervised distance-learning hubs at various locations, primarily in the eastern Coachella Valley, including sites in North Shore, Mecca, Thermal, Indio, Palm Desert, La Quinta and Bermuda Dunes. As of Sept. 15, 66 students were enrolled in the program, with a maximum capacity of 140. Then on Sept. 16, an additional location was opened at the Mecca Library, in order to help meet the serious needs of east valley working families and their student children—and the 10 students accepted at the Mecca location will have their tuition fees waived, due to the support of the Community Action Partnership of Riverside County, the Riverside County Library System, and the Desert Recreation Foundation/Desert Recreation District. At other locations, weekly resident tuition prices are $75.
“When we first rolled out the program, we didn’t have some of our funding partners on board yet,” Kalman said. “So, while the (registration fee) was very reasonable for a full day of childcare, we knew it was priced at a point where we weren’t going to be able to get some families into the program. But the Regional Access Project, which previously had given us a grant for certain communities to provide programming, authorized us to re-allocate that funding specifically to this program, because all our other programs are really not running (due to the pandemic). That was a huge help. Basically, it brought the fee down by half. Then, likewise, the county authorized us to re-allocate some Community Development Block Grant funding that was for youth programming in the unincorporated areas of the eastern Coachella Valley to this program. Then, our board further subsidized (tuition) for the rest of the valley to make it more reasonable.
“Now, the most anyone would pay is $75 per week, and along with that, our foundation offers a scholarship program which could bring it as low as $37.50 per week.”
Students in kindergarten through the sixth-grade can participate, and they can be registered by the week, or for extended periods. At all locations, the program begins at 7:30 a.m. each weekday and runs until 5:30 p.m. No class will contain more than 10 students, with two adult educator supervisors.
“The first half of the day is spent online in the classroom with their respective teachers,” Kalman said. “Each student brings their school-district-issued laptop, or iPad, or whatever it is that their particular school district is using. Our staff is there to assist the children in logging in, making sure that they’re connected when they’re supposed to be connected, and helping them with any technical issues they may have. Also, they assist the students with any questions or issues they have with their lessons that aren’t answered by the teacher online.
“Next, they have lunch,” Kalman continued, adding that students must bring their own lunch. “And then the afternoon program is like our typical afterschool program, where they participate in sports and enrichment, crafts and other activities.”
Safety is a top priority at each of the program’s distance-learning hubs.
“Only 10 students are in each class, because we have such great restrictions to make it a safe environment,” Kalman said. “It will be the same 10 kids every day in each of these different classrooms, and only those same 10 kids, along with the same two staff members. That way, there’s a reduced chance of any infection being brought in from outside.”
Each participant is given a temperature check before entering each day, and mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines must be observed.
“Parents aren’t even allowed into the facility,” Kalman said. “Basically, it’s curbside drop-off and pickup.”
Still, even with all the planning and effort expended to run the program, Kalman said he looks forward to the day when it comes to an end.
“We hope this will be a short-lived program, and that the kids will be back in their classrooms sooner rather than later,” Kalman said.
When does Kalman think local students may return to their classrooms?
“I don’t see it happening before the holidays,” he said. “It could change, but what I’ve heard is that it’s not likely to happen before next spring. So everybody is kind of scrambling to adapt. Hopefully, as we move forward—and people realize that this isn’t just a short-term thing, but we’re going to have to cope with it for a while—it will get taken much more seriously by all families. I think there is so much beyond just the instruction that (students) get out of school, and that’s what they’re missing.”
Families who are interested should call 760-347-3484, or visit www.myrecreationdistrict.com.