|Williamstown Youth Center Providing Place for Remote Learners|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
03:57AM / Wednesday, September 23, 2020
|The Williamstown Youth Center is maintaining social-distancing and face-covering rules in its day programs.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Families long have relied on the Williamstown Youth Center as a safe place for their children at the end of the school day.
In the days of COVID-19, some are relying on the WYC for support during school hours.
When Williamstown Elementary School began the school year with remote instruction last week, the youth center was able to host 20 kids who attended their Zoom-based classes under the watchful eye of WYC staff.
And when the local elementary school transitions to a hybrid learning model next month, the center stands ready to expand its capacity to 40 children at a time — up to 80 kids in all between the morning and afternoon sessions.
"Our mission is for the Williamstown Youth Center to continue providing as much service as we can to our families, safely," WYC Executive Director Michael Williams said this week. "That's the principle I'm operating by."
To continue to provide services during the pandemic, the youth center reconfigured some of its space, increased its cleaning protocols, bumped up its WiFi capacity and instituted face-covering and hand-washing protocols for staff and kids.
"It's a combination of reducing capacity, which allowed us to expand into rooms we wouldn't normally use for classroom activity, and buying physical barriers," Williams said. "Those are the three adaptations we've made to our physical space to provide more social distancing.
"Those three things together allow us to have a safe program for about 40 kids in the morning and 40 in the afternoon going forward."
That means the WYC will be able to allow nearly 20 percent of the WES pupil population to participate in the remote portion of the hybrid instruction in a safe environment with supervision from youth center staff.
"Our monitoring is constant," Williams said. "We've always considered ourselves to be partners of the elementary school. We obviously share a campus and a lot of the same kids. We've always had a high level of cooperation between these two offices.
"The kids have been coming here, and every kid has a daily schedule. We organize them according to grade in this building. If there are eight kids in a classroom, most of them will be working on the same tasks."
And for working parents who cannot be home to supervise children being taught remotely, the WYC staff is able to carry some of the load.
"Our program assistants and group leaders are in the classroom," Williams said. "They're looking at kids' daily schedules, helping the kids log on to their teachers' Zoom class and going from desk to desk helping kids as they attend class. Ninety-nine percent of the programming is done by the elementary school.
"We're assisting and, during recess times and other scheduled breaks, we do our thing — playing games, getting kids outside, running around, that sort of thing."
Williams said one of the big logistical issues to overcome has been lunch.
The hybrid model chosen by the Mount Greylock Regional School District for its elementary schools will have children attending either morning or afternoon sessions for in-person instruction on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday starting Oct. 5; the other half of each pupil's day will be spent in remote learning. The district will provide grab-and-go lunches, but pupils in school in the morning are expected to eat when they get home; pupils attending in-person classes in the afternoon will have their lunches at home before coming to school.
And when the school is switching from its morning to afternoon cohorts, it will be transporting all those kids around town. Williams said he expects there to be a 45-minute overlap midday when the Williamstown Youth Center sees half its kids arriving from the elementary school and the other half waiting to walk over to the elementary school.
The youth center has the capacity to host all those children in the building and maintain social distancing, Williams said. But Plan A is to let them eat their lunch and enjoy the transition time outside.
"If it's raining or cold, we have room between our gym, our library and our dance room to safely accommodate the overflow of kids," he said. "We do do some gross motor activities in those spaces, but we don't have the tables set up. … We'd accommodate a lot of those kids in their regular classrooms, but we do have overflow spaces.
"If it's 55 and sunny out, and there's a 45-minute or 50-minute period where they're overlapping … the first option is to have the kids eat outside."
Inside, Williams said the youth center has been able to keep fresh air circulating in its classroom spaces by keeping the windows open. When the weather turns, Williams is confident that that center's HVAC system is up to date, and its protocols for changing the system's filters will ensure that the air quality will be maintained.
The most noticeable physical upgrade to the building's infrastructure was the addition of Plexiglass partitions on the work tables that children use. The biggest invisible infrastructure improvement was an upgrade to the center's Wi-Fi capacity to accommodate all those virtual classrooms running at once.
"We haven't had any connectivity issues [since classes started on Wednesday]," Williams said. "We would have if we hadn't upgraded, but we're in good shape now."
Williams said the WYC so far has not experienced any trouble procuring the additional cleaning supplies it has needed to keep the facility sanitized.
And it did bump up its regular cleaning schedule. In the past, the building was thoroughly cleaned by custodians four nights a week, and it got a more cursory cleanup two nights a week. Now, the building gets a deep clean six nights per week.
"In addition to that, we've bought a lot of additional cleaners to have on hand," he said. "Surfaces are being wiped all the time after use. Every time kids use the bathroom, a staff person wipes down all the surfaces between use. We have all our interior doors propped open to minimize contact; people aren't having to put their hands on door handles and that kind of thing.
"For our classroom staff or program assistants, it's a constant process. We're always wiping things down."
During the initial weeks of school, all of the children in the Williamstown Youth Center program are pupils at WES, but registration in the expanded program that begins next month is not limited to the public school. Williams said the WYC hopes to welcome children from other communities. Based on guidance from local officials and the center's licensing agency, he expected to welcome kids from the private Pine Cobble School after that school's 14-day period expires following an initial positive test for COVID-19 earlier this month.
"We can accept kids, and we're planning to accept kids from other schools and other programs, but we reserve the right to change that policy as conditions warrant," Williams said.
Because the length of the day at the center is different for children in the morning and afternoon sessions that begin in October, the pricing is a little different: $272 per child for the month in the mornings and $368 per child for the afternoons.
The WYC also is offering a full-day session on Wednesdays in October, when Williamstown Elementary School will be fully remote under the district's hybrid plan. That program costs $160 per child, equivalent to what the center charges per day during school vacation periods or days out of school for teachers' professional development, Williams said.
Williams said registration is underway for October, spots are available and no family should be put off by the cost of enrollment.
"We're getting a pretty good response," he said. "But we're really trying to get the word out that we have these programs available. We want to let people know we have financial aid available, too. We know this is a challenging time for everyone, but the youth center has always been about affordability.
"We remain committed to providing services to families regardless of their ability to pay. We're here to offer financial assistance and payment plans to parents who need child care. That is an essential part of our mission."