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'Virtual learning centers' to stay open in Buffalo while kids await return to the classroom

'Virtual learning centers' to stay open in Buffalo while kids await return to the classroom

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Funding for virtual learning centers such as this one in Amherst, where kids learn remotely while their parents are at work, is set to expire at the end of the month. However, the Buffalo Public Schools, Erie County and Say Yes Buffalo expect to keep centers in the city open at least through Feb. 1, when Buffalo schools are slated to resume in-person instruction.

Parents in the Buffalo Public Schools will have at least one child care option still available while they wait for the city schools to reopen.

The school district, with assistance from Erie County, will keep open “until further notice” the more than four dozen “virtual learning centers” across the city that have been supervising children during the day while they learn remotely amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Erie County, using emergency assistance from the federal government, opened more than 70 learning centers across the county in September, including 52 in Buffalo. The free service is set to expire at the end of December.

Schools in Buffalo, however, aren’t reopening until Feb. 1, so closing the centers in the city would affect about 1,800 kids who rely on them.

“The district is working closely with our funding partners…and will keep virtual learning centers open until further notice as we transition to in-person learning Feb. 1,” Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement, wrote to the Board of Education.

Keresztes noted that the School Board will be asked to approve funding for the centers in January.

In Buffalo, the learning centers have been open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, providing a lifeline for working parents while the district is fully remote. The centers provide students in kindergarten through eighth grade with supervision, WiFi connectivity and meals while they are learning virtually during the school day.

“The expectation was a minimum of 1,200 kids and we ended up serving 600 more than that,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo.

The not-for-profit partnered with the Buffalo Public Schools to oversee the learning centers in the city.

Rust said that the school district is putting up money to keep the centers open, while the county will provide child care subsidy dollars.

“The bottom line is the learning centers will be open and kids in Buffalo Public Schools who need them can attend until schools reopen,” Rust said when reached Sunday.

“The goal is for them to remain open through January – and potentially longer if needed,” Rust said.

The Buffalo Public Schools, where all 32,000 students have been learning remotely since March, announced earlier this month that in-person instruction would be phased in starting Feb. 1.

Reopening would begin with the highest-need students from each school, as well as all high school seniors and those in grades pre-K through second. The rest of the students who want to return to in-person learning would be phased in through mid-March.

At-Large Board Member Larry Scott, who posted about the learning centers on social media last week, said the school district is expected to provide $1 million to keep the learning centers running through January.

Beyond that, the district is pursuing additional funding, Scott said in a text message Sunday.

Both Rust and Keresztes also mentioned ongoing conversations with local philanthropies to help support the continuation of the learning centers.

“We will also keep you updated in the new year regarding the multiple funding streams from our partners that will be used to support this ongoing work,” Keresztes wrote to the School Board.

Erie County invested $14 million for virtual learning centers in all 28 school districts in the county, as part of the $25 million in federal CARES Act funding it allocated to support schools, child care providers and caregivers.

About $4 million of that was earmarked for child care providers, while another $7 million was designated for replenishing and expanding the child care subsidy so the centers could be free for families earning up to 85% of the state median income.

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