“We are washing our hands all the time,” Trayvon said as his mother picked him up Tuesday. “I just washed my hands before I left.”
He attended one of New York City’s 93 new “regional enrichment centers” located in schools across the city — part of a new program designed to provide free child care for those on the front lines of the pandemic.
Life was upended for millions of children in New York this month when private and public schools closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But this past week, thousands of public school students whose parents work in public health jobs returned to classrooms inside the centers.
The program, which opened Monday and has so far enrolled roughly 8,000 children, provides a space where students can do class work at spaced-apart desks, eat three hot meals a day and learn how to protect themselves from the virus.
New York’s schools — the largest public school system in the country, with 1.1 million students, 750,000 of whom are poor — provided not just education but recreation, meals and sometimes laundry. The enrichment centers are an attempt to compensate for some of what has been lost while the schools are shuttered. It is a major social experiment for the city.
“We’ve never done something like this before,” said Miranda Barbot, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education. “We’ve made these centers available to thousands of families who need them and are serving all of the ones who’ve said that they do.”
Many of the buildings, whose hallways burst with students during more normal times, were quiet Tuesday.
But the city said enrollment is expected to grow after eligibility was expanded Wednesday to include employees of grocery stores and pharmacies as well as those who work for city agencies, including the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the New York City Housing Authority.
On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said not as many students had enrolled in the program as “we would have expected.”
He attributed that to the general fear and confusion of life amid a pandemic as well as the large numbers of people staying home from work, which offered some parents other child care options. Either way, he said, there was “certainly plenty of room” at the centers.
“They’re there for essential workers,” he said. “So here’s what it comes down to: So long as the essential worker, if they’ve got a better arrangement, that’s fine. We just need to support them to make sure they can show up and doing the lifesaving work they’re doing.”
Still, some found the sight of near-empty classrooms to be jarring. A cafeteria worker at one center at Public School 125 in Harlem, where the playground was empty and the halls were pin-drop quiet, said school employees far outnumbered children Tuesday. Over the course of nearly an hour, only one child could be seen when her mother arrived to take her home.
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“There are barely any kids in there,” said the cafeteria worker, who declined to be publicly named because she was not authorized to speak to the news media. “One classroom might have just one kid in it; one classroom might have three kids; most of the classrooms have no kids.”
A similar scene could be found at an enrichment center at Public School 19 in the Corona section of Queens, where employees said between five and 10 students showed up Tuesday. At another center on West 120th Street in Harlem, a security guard said the school was mostly empty.
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Ten or so children played at a center in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Tuesday, according to Beruska Vazquez, a nurse at a hospital in Brooklyn whose three children were enrolled in the program there.
She said the program did exactly what it was designed to do: It allowed her to keep going to work while her children — two girls and a boy — were not in school.
“It’s good because at least I could go to work and get paid for it,” said Vazquez. She said she would keep her children enrolled in the program “until I can come up with something else.”
One of her daughters, Nayaliz, 11, said that children at the enrichment center were prodded to stay 6 feet apart and that “everyone was washing their hands.” She said the students did schoolwork all morning but spent all afternoon in art and physical education classes.
“In normal school we work all the time,” she said, grinning.
A similar scene played out at the enrichment center on West 93rd Street. The lobby bustled with activity as volunteers sorted supplies and used contactless thermometers to take visitors’ temperatures, although fewer than 20 students were enrolled there, according to Sonia Jimenez, a school nurse working at the center.
“As you can see from the size of the building, we could take a lot more than that,” she said. “People are just now waking up to the fact that this is here, and so I think we will see a lot of people starting to get their kids registered.”
The enrichment centers are staffed by volunteers from the Department of Education’s staff, and Jimenez said she had been eager to sign up to help medical workers and others “who can’t go to work until they know they have someone to take care of their children.”
“I was a latchkey kid when I was young, but I don’t think you could train a kid today to be like we were back then,” she said. “It is a whole different world now.”
Monique Forbes, a nurse at a medical office in Harlem, said she enrolled her son, Trayvon, in the center on West 93rd Street on Monday.
He would normally spend days off from school with his grandmother, Forbes said. But because his grandmother has a compromised immune system, that was not a viable option during the pandemic. She said work had been “crazy.”
“When I am at work, I really want to be there, but I also have to take care of my child,” Forbes said. “This program is a big help. I don’t know what I would do without it.”
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She said she had been impressed with the center’s anti-coronavirus measures, which included spacing out the children’s desks, taking their temperatures each day and leading them through frequent hand-washing.
Time spent with even a small group of their peers has provided a social outlet for young people who might otherwise suffer from cabin fever. Forbes said the program’s start Monday induced first-day-of-school anxiety in both her and her son, which was an almost welcome distraction from the coronavirus.
“He was a little nervous because he’d be in a school with a lot of new kids, and I was nervous because you’re just thinking about him all day, how is the first day going and everything,” she said. “I felt like I did when he was 3 and going to school for the first time. It was all of that all over again.”
But her son said the program had so far been going well.
“It is kind of better than normal school because we don’t do all the same things we usually do,” he said. His one complaint was that most of the students were girls, although a few boys enrolled Tuesday.
“He has started making friends with some of the girls,” Forbes said. “It’s something new.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .