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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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As South Hill students fill ‘day camp’ slots, concerns emerge about families most in need

Chase Middle School student Porter Richardson, 13, remembers his combination numbers to open and clean out his locker on June 11. Spokane Public Schools launched a day program to offer families a supervised, safe place to do remote school work, but officials say the cost has meant few students from low-income families have enrolled.  (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)
Chase Middle School student Porter Richardson, 13, remembers his combination numbers to open and clean out his locker on June 11. Spokane Public Schools launched a day program to offer families a supervised, safe place to do remote school work, but officials say the cost has meant few students from low-income families have enrolled. (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)

South Hill families have snagged an outsized share of the 700-plus spots in Spokane Public Schools’ new “day camp” program designed for kids to learn remotely – supervised and safe – in elementary and middle school buildings until schools fully reopen.

The innovative program allows 20 students per building during what would normally be regular school days.

The vast majority of students in the district will do their distance learning at home or wherever they can study and have Internet access.

The day camp program costs $25 per child per day. With a sibling discount of 15%, the cost is $231.25 a week for two children – a price tag many poorer families may not be able to afford.

The district has been asking the community for scholarship donations to help subsidize the cost of day camp, but it wasn’t able to promise any financial help during the registration period.

The program also lacks scheduling flexibility; parents must commit to a full week – and the full cost.

Those costs and conditions didn’t dampen interest among families on the South Hill, where more parents choose to enroll their children in the first-come, first-served program.

As the registrations filled South Hill schools, some North Side schools continue to have slots available for their day camp program.

School board President Jerrall Haynes said the registration report was tough to hear.

“I struggle to see how it would be from a lack of need,” Haynes said of the lower demand in north Spokane.

Lisa White, director of after-school programs who has worked closely with the poorer neighborhoods of northeast Spokane, agreed.

“Those are families who need us deeply,” White said.

The day camps were envisioned as a way to help parents who struggled to support the distance learning of their children, as well as a program that could help parents who needed to physically return to their workplaces this fall, including teachers.

The program also aimed to help students from families without the money or means to help their children learn online.

Originally, the day camps at each school were to enroll 40 students each.

However the school board decided to add several special education and English Language Development students at each site, because those programs were disproportionately affected when schools closed last spring amid the pandemic.

To maintain social distancing standards, the board cut the number of students allowed at the day camp sites to 20 per day.

Now the program faces some logistical challenges. With enrollment capped at 20 students per building, some students on the South Hill will be traveling to day camps at North Side schools while students in those neighborhoods must stay put.

That means hundreds of low-income parents will pick up where they left off in June: many without child care, reliable internet or the money to do anything about it.

Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson said the district continues to ask community partners to help fund scholarships to offset the cost of day camp for families that can’t afford it. The school has stated it wants the day camps to be financially self-sustaining.

With slots now filled, it’s unclear how the neediest families could be helped even if they did receive financial aid unless the board boosts capacity above 20 students per site, or the school district finds more buildings to host additional day camps.

The district also is dealing with another issue: internet connectivity.

Internet access has been a problem for online learning since schools closed in March as many low-income families don’t purchase internet service.

The district tried to respond, setting up hotspots in parking lots and reaching out to internet providers for discounts.

The district couldn’t provide an estimate of how many students live in homes without high-speed internet access.

“We’ve had some of those conversations with the mayor’s office,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said Wednesday night.

“One of the misconceptions out there is that connectivity is just a rural challenge,” Swinyard said. “We are working hard to make that clear: that there are neighborhoods in Spokane that have poor connectivity.”

At the same time, Swinyard touted the district’s ability to monitor students’ academic progress through its Clever sign-on system.

“That will show families how much time kids are spending (on assignments),” he said.

And as they did last spring, the Clever and Microsoft Teams applications will reveal which students are participating.

If they aren’t, staff will presumably reach out to families. If connectivity is the issue, help may be on the way.

Earlier this week, the state superintendent’s office announced it has $8.8 million in federal funds earmarked for expanding internet access.

The money is part of a $216 million allocation for state school districts through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

OSPI said the funds will allow it to contract with providers to finance internet access for up to 60,000 low-income students through the end of the school year.

Cindy Coleman, chief financial officer for the district, said Spokane will learn soon – “maybe tomorrow” – how much it will receive.

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