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Matt Driscoll: From low-income child care to remote learning: COVID-19 forces Tacoma day care to adapt

News Tribune - 9/15/2020

Sep. 15--Turner Cagle didn't hesitate.

Over a 20-year career working as a teacher at the Multicultural Child and Family Hope Center in Tacoma, the 39-year-old said, adapting to the coronavirus pandemic isn't the most difficult challenge he's faced.

Not even close.

"I have to watch kids get taken from their parents, right?" Cagle explained.

Cagle had a point. While the Multicultural Child and Family Hope Center might look like an average day care, the truth is much more complicated.

Ninety-eight percent of families who depend on the nonprofit are low-income, and about 35 percent are in foster care. For many, homelessness is a daily reality. In addition to standard day care offered to children 2 to 12 years old, the center works with the state Department of Health and Social Services to provide emergency child care for kids removed from their home and offers respite care for area foster families.

It's important work that takes an emotional toll, Cagle said.

It also helps him keep the hardship of adjusting to COVID-19 -- and the realities of figuring out how to facilitate remote learning for dozens of school kids -- in proper perspective.

"This right here is learning, being resilient and ... just a lot of brain work," Cagle said of the logistical challenges presented by COVID-19, adding that "heavy prayer" and "hope" have also played a large part.

On Friday -- officially the third day of remote instruction offered by Tacoma Public Schools -- all of these things were on display.

The work was chaotic, overwhelming and saintly, which is a credit of Cagle and his coworkers at the Multicultral Child and Family Hope Center. Roughly 60 school-age children were on hand, each trying to navigate their individual remote learning plans, while the center's staff of roughly a dozen made the rounds -- answering questions and making sure the kids had what they needed to do the work.

The scene also served as another example of the disproportionate impact the coronavirus has had on low-income parents and families who depend on child care, as well as the burden placed on child care facilities with area schools currently closed for in-person instruction.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, child care facilities like the Multicultural Child and Family Hope Center have been deemed essential by Gov. Jay Inslee, even as reduced enrollments have hurt bottom lines.

With in-person instruction not happening at local schools, many child care facilities are also being forced to serve as de facto schools for children who don't have the option to stay home, including taking on the inherent health risks.

None of it is easy or straightforward, Cagle said last week.

All you can do is take it day by day and kid by kid, he explained

"It's not all going to be successful. Some days are going to be bad, and some aren't," Cagle said. "We just keep reminding the kids and the parents that it's OK, we're going to get through this, it's only the first week."

The COVID-19 pandemic has required the center to adapt quickly, according to executive director Gale Neal, which is something she's accustomed to doing in her many years running the center.

For example, as local districts moved to distance learning models to start the school year, Neal said, she quickly realized that the center would have to expand if it was going to successfully help educate kids who would normally be in school most of the day.

While the Multicultural Child and Family Hope Center has long maintained a facility near South 19th and Sprague -- where it typically serves roughly 150 kids a day -- the center is now also using a dilapidated old church it purchased several years ago for school-age care, converting 225 seats previously used for worship into a makeshift, socially distanced virtual schoolhouse.

Eventually, the Multicultural Child and Family center hopes to raze the building and construct a new facility in its place, but Neal said COVID-19 forced those plans to the back burner.

It's just one of many quick pivots the center has been forced to undertake as it grapples with how to make sure the dozens of school-age kids under its care also have the ability to access remote learning.

With help from community partners and a grant, the Multicultural Child and Family Center has ordered electronic devices for all of its kids, Neal explained. She hopes they will arrive this week, which will make a big difference.

Until then?

The center is making due, which is something the nonprofit specializes in, Neal said.

Because there's no other choice.

"Our families are restaurant workers, for example, or they have jobs that they can't do from home," Neal explained. "The kids need to be here or the parents can't work, so ... this is really important."

It's a fact Cagle knows well.

He said he sees himself in many of the kids he's now helping through a pandemic, and that keeps him going.

As a child, he experienced homelessness and saw hardships like addiction in his family

"I couldn't imagine how I would have been able to do virtual learning," Cagle said. "So it's very important for me to be able to provide for a kid who might be going through the same circumstances that I went through.

"I can see the resiliency in these kids every day."


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