After a semester without an outbreak, city learning hubs set to expand

Health guidelines increased costs, reduced number of students program could serve

City learning “hubs” wrapped up their first semester of crisis-born childcare having served about 2,000 students — around a third of the originally-intended capacity.

The hubs served San Francisco’s neediest students at 78 sites each weekday, providing social interaction, enrichment, and help with distance learning intended to spare frazzled parents.

No hubs experienced an outbreak or exposure to COVID-19 during the fall semester, according to city officials. They will return on Jan. 5 and aim to increase enrollment by another 1,000 students in the next expansion phase.

Public school students will largely remain in distance learning for the spring semester as San Francisco Unified School District plans for a limited return beginning Jan. 25.

“We knew it would take a village to create this new program, and provide a safe place for kids to get help with distance learning, have healthy food, and just have a place where they could be kids and socialize with their friends,” Mayor London Breed said on Thursday. “We will do whatever we can to get our classrooms open.”

The emergency initiative by the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families launched in September to provide day-long childcare and distance learning assistance to the neediest families. It began with the goal of caring for 5,000 – 6,000 children across more than 100 sites.

But health guidelines changed the allowed ratio of adults to children, prompting officials to halve the originally planned enrollment limit to maintain safety with small, stable cohorts of children. Plans eventually shifted from two adults with 20 youth to two adults with 14 youth.

“Because of that, mathematically, we could just not make it work,” said DCYF Director Maria Su. “It forced us to reduce the number of kids but required us to have more staff and more sites.”

The program costs $61 million for the year, most of which came from DCYF’s budget; about $8 million came from Rec and Park, and DCYF is fundraising for another $3 million funding gap, Su said.

Enrollment was also initially slow as DCFY and several community-based organizations prioritized the hardest-to-reach families. That included students experiencing homelessness, English language learners, low-income families or those in foster care, public housing, RV parks, and single-residency-occupancy (SROs) hotels.

Of those enrolled, 96 percent were students of color, 444 live in public housing, 152 are homeless, 64 live in SROs, 18 are in foster care, and 287 need language assistance.

Shashona H. said she had to quit working to care for her daughter, but was able to start a new job after being approached for a hub placement at the Merced Heights Playground.

“It was a struggle before,” said Shashona H., a single mother. “Because my baby was able to attend, life has been a little easier. I feel safe, I feel like I’m safe and they’re very caring. “

While a survey is in progress to determine learning progress, DCYF said there are many anecdotal stories of students lacking technological know-how or connection who arrived at the hubs with uncompleted assignments — in one case, more than 100 assignments.

The hubs have been a lesson in how to provide students with more one-on-one instruction who might otherwise struggle without it, Su noted. She hopes that community-based organizations will be a more integrated part of schools moving forward, as with afterschool programs placed directly in the building.

“For students who have struggled since spring, the one-on-one support that they’re getting at the hub site is really making a big difference,” Su said. “I can imagine after we get through this pandemic, we will start seeing the true value of our CBO partners.”

DCYF has also been documenting how partners have adhered to coronavirus precautions with UCSF so that other academic institutions, like SFUSD, can effectively implement them as they reopen. SFUSD plans to begin bringing back priority students in-person by Jan. 25 for hybrid learning but has said it cannot accomodate more than 15,000 students on campus at a time.

If students are enrolled in the hubs and return to in-person learning, their spots will be saved for the days they aren’t in the classroom and left empty when they are to maintain stable cohorts, Su added.

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