Arlington, VA

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Claire Noakes

If you think it is hard getting a reservation at the popular restaurant Komi, you haven’t tried enrolling your elementary school children in the APS Extended Day program. Parents mark their calendars and set midnight alarms because the stakes are high for a limited number of slots. Yet, for two years in a row, the vendor failed, the website crashed and parents became frantic, staying up late at night or missing work to line up in person on registration day.

After being unable to hire a suitable replacement vendor, the Extended Day program chose to end its first come, first serve policy, instead offering enrollment if a student is registered between April 1 – May 15. They instituted a random lottery system at schools receiving more registrations than slots available. Children not enrolled will be on a waiting list.

This lottery creates a random outcome and also fails to address the core issue: demand for Extended Day exceeds the supply of childcare slots. Last year, 271 children were placed on the waitlist because there were not enough slots available, and demand is projected to increase. It’s time to focus on how to better support Extended Day.

Around 4,100 kids participate in Extended Day at 31 Arlington schools, allowing for a seamless handoff before and after the school day, including on early release days. This population is equivalent to filling roughly seven elementary schools.

Yet management of this significant program is anything but seamless. APS operates the Extended Day program, and donates the physical school space, but APS is prohibited by state law from spending a dime of its budget on childcare services. Parents pay fees on a sliding scale to cover operational and staffing costs, but parents can’t buy more physical space from APS to meet the enrollment demand. Arlington County contributes to the cost of building APS schools and subsidizes around $200,000 in sliding fees for lower-income parents, but doesn’t have a direct management role in the program. Under this set up, each stakeholder has limited ability to influence the program in its entirety, and it’s easy for Extended Day to fall through the cracks.

But imagine a world where the program no longer operates:

  • Kids would no longer get a safe, unstructured play opportunity with a large number of their peers. Unstructured play with kids of different ages affords unique social development opportunities that can’t easily be replicated.
  • Parents would lose a reliable, high quality source of childcare aimed at addressing the mismatch between employer schedules and school hours. Finding a qualified individual to care for your kid for just a few hours a day is a logistical nightmare, and individuals get sick or have emergencies. Many parents would have to cut back on hours or forego a needed second income.
  • Commuters could see traffic spike as schools filled up and emptied out completely at bell time, increasing school bus ridership, and traffic and parking management.
  • Arlington County’s Child Care Initiative could experience a setback in improving access, availability and quality of childcare for residents.

The Extended Day program provides excellent value to the community. Arlington County, APS and parents must step up and creatively address short and longer-term concerns.

Could the county offer to run the enrollment process this year? Could the county pay for retrofits of flexible space options (such as interior removable partitions) at schools to allow for classroom space to be converted to meet the higher square footage requirements for child care space? Could PTAs brainstorm with principals and Extended Day staff on how to maximize use of existing physical space? Is new school design helping or hurting the capacity challenges of this program?

Parents won’t be setting their alarms at midnight this year, but there is still plenty to keep us up at night worrying about the Extended Day program. It’s time for all stakeholders to look at structural ways to eliminate waiting lists for this high-impact program that benefits so many Arlington working families.

Claire Noakes lives near the East Falls Church metro station, where she enjoys watching her children chase rabbits away from their vegetable garden.

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