Essential workers scramble for daycare as city program falls short

learning bridges
Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Parents who serve as essential workers and have children with special needs claim the city has left them out to dry, as the Department of Education’s program for providing daycare services ended earlier this month — sending parents on a last-minute scramble to find suitable childcare. 

City honchos ended the Regional Enrichment Center program in anticipation of a return to part-time in-person schooling, and launched the “Learning Bridges” program to care for young kids of essential workers on days when they were not scheduled to be in the classroom — but many parents say they’ve been left in limbo, with their students yet to receive a seat while the city works out contracts with individual schools. 

Now, parents like Nicole Memoli — a Staten Island paramedic continuing to work through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and whose daughter Sarah is autistic — say they’re running out of childcare options.

“When they really needed us, alright, but even though they say we’re still in a crisis, nobody cares,” said Memoli. “It’s just very distressing.” 

Memoli received an email from the city confirming that they’d received her application, and they would contact her as soon as her daughter’s school has a Learning Bridges program matched with it — but since then, she’s heard nothing. 

Since the REC program ended on Sept. 11, and school began for Sarah the next week, Sarah’s childcare has had to come from family members and babysitters on days she is not in the building — but it’s an unsustainable situation, Memoli says, as Sarah needs around-the-clock, specialized care.

Remote learning also does not work for Sarah, according to the mother, who says her daughter “throws a fit, breaks her glasses, breaks the iPad — and that’s it.”

Making matters worse, the city has given no indication about whether the new Learning Bridges program will be able to accommodate special needs students, according to Memoli, whose daughter attends a 4410 special education school

The city says it aims to build out capacity of the program up to 100,000, with only “some” availability at the start of the school year. The program partners with local nonprofits and community centers to provide childcare space on days when children of essential workers are scheduled for remote learning.

Program reps told Bay Ridge mother-of-two Mila Cedono at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic that she didn’t qualify for the original REC program, despite being an essential worker — leaving childcare up to her father, who had recently suffered a heart attack. 

Now, with her five-year-old autistic son starting school, she has applied for the Learning Bridges program, but has yet to hear back — leaving her daycare plans as a big question mark. 

“It’s been a struggle, I’m not going to lie, it’s been very hard,” she said.  

A spokesman for the Department of Youth and Community, which is heading the Learning Bridges initiative, said the agency is working to expand the program and match families to seats as the school year begins, including special needs families. 

“We continue to build out these new programs and match them with designated DOE schools, including schools serving students with special needs,” said Mark Zustovich. “More offer letters go out to families every day, and this will be ongoing through December as the program grows.”

Memoli says if she’s unable to secure a seat soon she may be forced to take a leave of absence in order to avoid paying for a private daycare — something she thinks the city should pay for. 

“The mayor made certain promises that priority would be made to people who are in the REC programs, because they’re obviously the people who really needed it before,” she said. “He’s falling through, he hasn’t even tried.”