Monica Rios, right, education manager at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, works with Mercy Arroyo and Grace Lui to stack Chromebooks and prepare school supplies and backpacks for the kids who will be starting at the center on Monday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

City learning hubs starting small with focus on the most needy

Kids will attend school online in small group, daycamp-like settings

Six months after city schools shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, some San Francisco kids — and their parents — are set to get a break from distance learning.

Around 700 children on Monday will filter into more than 50 city learning “hubs” at recreation centers, libraries and other facilities staffed by community organizations. The hubs are intended for students in low-income households, public housing or single-room occupancy units, or who are homeless, foster youth or English-language learners.

They will function as extended daycare, supporting children with remote learning while keeping them fed and engaged while parents work or otherwise need childcare. Children must remain in a stable cohort of no more than 14, staffed by no more than two adults, per state regulations that changed during the planning process headed by the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families.

“The logistics alone are mind-boggling,” said Maria Su, executive director of DCYF. “We’re constantly having to pivot and change, and that’s OK. At the end of the day, we still feel very confident that we’re going to have good, safe options for children that will meet parents’ needs.”

Christina Dal Pozzo, a social work intern at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, prepares to welcome elementary school students to the center’s community learning hub. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The emergency project was launched nearly two months ago, and ultimately aims to safely care for 6,000 children across more than 100 sites by repurposing $55 million in grants usually intended for afterschool enrichment for a new purpose. DCYF and dozens of community partners will provide a day of teaching support, enrichment, meals and social interaction while schools are closed.

The San Francisco Salvation Army Kroc Center in the Tenderloin, one of the selected sites, had a test run with its summer camp. Education manager Monica Rios said that for the community hubs, kids would come for breakfast, spend the morning doing their live instruction or individual assignments aided by staff, break for lunch, and then go onto enrichment activities.

Those include crafts, virtual soccer practice and yoga through the Salvation Army’s own partners.

Staffers are also prepared for a range of emotions from kids who may not have interacted with other folks in months or who have had a tough time remaining isolated at home.

Masks will be required at the Salvation Army Kroc Center community learning hub. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Everyone will wear masks while washing their hands and sanitizing between each activity and room. Temperatures of children and staff will be checked on arrival and children may be sent home if staff observe symptoms. Should any staff, child or their parent test positive for coronavirus, the program may close for a time until it is safe.

“We understand that for them, it’ll take a little to adapt,” said Rios about safety protocols. “There’s going to be a range of emotions.”

The children arriving on Monday are in transitional kindergarten to sixth grade, largely monolingual, live within three blocks of the center, and have parents who are either essential workers or out of work from the pandemic, said Rios.

Signs at the Salvation Army Kroc Center remind students to wash their hands. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Still, the number of children registered so far is far below the 2,000 DCYF had intended to serve in the first phase beginning in September. That’s due to efforts to prioritize high-needs families who are hard to reach and disconnected from the internet, according to Su.

“We really want to flip the script,” Su said. “These are families that have historically been at the back of the line and we’re moving them to the front of the line. I do think it speaks to the fact that these are very high-needs families and do have a lot of things going on in their lives.”

As of Aug. 28, 30 percent of youth that applied came from Bayview Hunters Point, 25 percent from Visitacion Valley/Portola, and 12 percent from the Tenderloin. Districts 6 and 10, which represent these neighborhoods, include the lion’s share of sites thus far.

Desks stand spaced apart for social distancing at the community learning hub at the Salvation Army Kroc Center. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Slots are expected to fill up quickly once the program broadens the application pool. DCYF is processing paper applications, though it’s unclear how many, and more children will be added as they are processed.

The slow-moving outreach frustrated some officials and parents who sought to bring in more families. Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents District 6, said he agrees with prioritizing high-needs families but the remaining slots should be filled soon.

“I think the next few weeks, we’ll have a clear picture of how and who we can expand these hubs for,” Haney said. “We should adapt and move really quickly because there’s a lot of parents who are really struggling right now.”

Rebecca Carrillo Steinruck with the Tenderloin After School Program opens a box filled with PPE for school children. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The hubs are launching shortly as some schools are readying for a return to in-person teaching, which could begin as soon as Sept. 21 for those approved for a waiver. At least 53 private and charter schools have sought a waiver, while SFUSD is negotiating an agreement with labor unions needed before in-person teaching is allowed.

But the hubs are expected to continue through the end of the academic year, since schools may not return to full capacity until a vaccine is implemented.

“The intent of the hubs is to operate until the end of the school year,” Su said. “When SFUSD starts their hybrid, in-person program, we’ll have to have those conversations with SFUSD about how does that interact with the hubs because, once again, we are targeting the same populations.”

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