With fewer people than expected enrolling in a county-run childcare program, the two public libraries closed to make room for kids have reopened to the public.
The Rust and Ashburn libraries were closed down as the county government sought space for a program to give parents a safe place to leave their kids while parents are at work, since students are not in the school buildings for distance learning. The Distance Learning Child Care Program is open to kids from kindergarten through sixth grade.
Although the two libraries only account for a small of the space set aside for the program—around 90 seats out of about 1,200—the move to close them caused a stir as county supervisors informed the library staff only after the decision had been made over email, and didn’t take a public vote until more than a week after they had decided privately. County and school employees got the first chance at signing up for the program; enrollment for the general public began only a few days before classes began on Tuesday.
While the library system is run independently by the Library Board of Trustees, the county government provides the budget and owns the buildings.
With fewer than 200 kids enrolled so far as of Wednesday night, supervisors asked county staff members to work with library staffers to look at reopening the libraries and also to look into cutting the cost of the childcare program. And on Friday, the libraries reopened, with social distancing and safety measures in place.
“For the childcare centers, the county already set out their tables and chairs for children, but we can open even without touching those setups,” said library Director Chang Liu. “Just in case the county will eventually have enough registration for children, they can use the library again.”
Assistant County Administrator Erin McLellan said around 600 more kids would have to enroll before that happens. So far, the county is using space set aside in 11 elementary schools and two spaces the county has leased. The community centers and recreation centers selected for the program also remain empty.
About 25 percent of the kids in the program are associated with employees of the schools or county government, McLellan reported; 45 percent are paying the normal rate, while 30 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch at school and therefore a 50 percent discount in the childcare program fee.
It costs $1,005 a month for the full-day program, which lasts until 6 p.m., and $660 for the school-day program, which lasts until 2:30 p.m. County government and school division employees are offered a 10 percent discount.
The enrollment is less than county staff members anticipated; a survey circulated several weeks ago, when the program was still being considered, found around 7,000 people interested in the idea. McLellan said a number of factors could contributed to the subsequent low enrollment, such as the price, that parents may have found other childcare options by the time the program opened for enrollment, or that parents are waiting to see how distance learning goes before leaving their kids in someone else’s care.
The libraries could be released from the program entirely; on Wednesday night, supervisors discussed shrinking the program, and next Tuesday, Sept. 15 could vote formally to do so.
“Based off of what we’re seeing, based off the space we’re using, based off of the interactions that we’re having with people that would potentially use it, all of those things would kind of direct us to using a lower number than what was approved by the board,” County Administrator Tim Hemstreet told supervisors.
Because of the way the program is funded, with a split of user fees and CARES Act money, shrinking the program and shrinking the cost go hand-in-hand. County staff members have already sketched out a plan to shrink the program to 600 seats while simultaneously lower fees to $690 for the full day program and $345 for the school day. For families that get a discount because they are eligible for free or reduced lunch at the schools, the program would cost $345 a month for the full-day program, and $173 a month for the school-day program—far lower than most day care rates.
The county could also offer more schedule flexibility by allowing parents to sign their kids up for two or three days a week rather than five days a week, and pay a proportional fee.
“If this issue is an issue of fees, I don’t care if we slash these fees almost to nothing,” said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “… I would put these prices as low as possible, and then do heavy marketing,”
“A thousand dollars a month right now—I mean, we are in the middle of a deep recession right now, if it is not already a depression,” agreed Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) Wednesday. “… We need to bring those fees down as low as possible and get as many people in the childcare program as we can.”
However, Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) pointed out the county doesn’t have infinite money for the program—with CARES Act funds limited, and county budget growth frozen while county leaders wait to see the pandemic’s impacts on tax revenues, to offset fees with local tax dollars supervisors will have to pull them from somewhere else.
“The fees are to offset our costs. If we don’t do that, then we have to cut something in the general fund in order to pay for it,” Letourneau said. “And I’ve heard a lot of people say they want to lower fees … I have not heard a lot of people say what they’re going to put on the chopping block to cut in order to lower the fees.”
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said the “overwhelming majority” of feedback from constituents he has received “is that we really screwed the pooch with this idea to close the libraries.”
But Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) defended supervisors’ work so far.
“I think we planned it exactly right,” Turner said. “I think from the moment we realized the schools were going to distance learning … we started to plan immediately, and we realized we were going to have a childcare obligation.”
“As far as the ‘pooch screwing,’ I actually believe that the mistake—and I will own that—was not the decision but the communication,” Randall said. Some supervisors and, privately, some county staff members have expressed frustration that their attempt to stand up the program to help parents in short order has been met with such resistance and criticism. “I think we did not communicate that well for a myriad of reasons … but we’ve all learned something about the communication, even when we’re moving fast, even when we’re on break, even with all that’s going on.”
Randall previously said supervisors were briefed individually on the options for providing space for childcare while schools are conducting distance learning from Aug. 17 to Aug. 20, and conducted a straw poll vote to move ahead with that plan on Aug. 21. The next day, she said, supervisors and the county administrator contacted then-Board of Trustees Chairman Denis Cotter and library Director Chang Liu. It would still be another week before the first announcement from any government source—the library’s public information office—that the libraries would be closed. At the time of that announcement on Saturday, Aug. 29, it would still be another three days before supervisors would take a public, formal vote, having already decided by email more than a week prior.
While the discussion Wednesday was held at a special meeting announced six days in advance, Randall has declined to call any board meetings in August, the month supervisors have traditionally taken their recess.
For K-6 Distance learning Child Care Program details and registration, go to loudoun.gov/DLchildcare. The county also offers after school programs such as County After School Activities or CASA and Youth After School or YAS. Learn more about those at loudoun.gov/1199/After-School-Programs.
For more information about library reopening and COVID-19 safety precautions, visit library.loudoun.gov/reopening.