Consultants, zoning approvals and building inspections are all required for daycare centers to get a license. Several groups in New Haven that run learning hubs are working through a lengthy application process for daycares, even though they say they are far from it.
“We were a bit confused and all the way infuriated,” said Genevive Walker, COO of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT).
The New Haven center opened learning hubs for middle and high schoolers in September. Walker said they were answering an immediate need they saw in the community when New Haven public schools went fully remote at the beginning of the school year.
They were told by the state to shut down a few weeks later because they were considered a daycare center and needed a license to operate. ConnCAT said that’s not what they do and should be under another umbrella.
“We’re concerned about whether or not the regulation that’s offered is an appropriate match for the urgent need to provide safe spaces,” said Walker.
It’s a statewide issue, according to Debra Johnson, licensing director for the Office of Early Childhood. She explains that although the services may differ between daycares and learning hubs, the hubs fit the legal description.
“The definition is fairly broad, it just says supplemental child care, you’re providing care to children,” said Johnson. “This situation meets that definition.”
Johnson said the hubs were given an extension until Jan. 15 to keep operating and to complete the application.
Pastor Steven Cousin helped organize a learning hub in a Newhallville church and said filling out a 60-page application is a daunting task.
“Do you have a dietitian, is there a medical consultant, is there a dental consultant?” said Cousin, rattling off application requirements.
He adds there are also environmental tests for lead paint and soil, and a long list of local approvals from the health department, fire department, building inspection and zoning.
“We go before the zoning board on Tuesday," said Cousin.
The entire process can be overwhelming for some hubs working to get it all done.
“It could take up to two months to get before the board of zoning and appeals to get your space cleared for this use,” said Walker.
Steve Driffin is the Youth and Community Programs manager for ConnCAT. He said they’re working on aligning the local requirements with those from the state so it can all be done by Jan. 15.
“So those are almost two different entities that require two different things and we have to answer to both,” said Driffin.
Walker said they agree there should be some oversight with the hubs, but they shouldn’t be considered daycare centers.
“Which is a bit of a mismatch but I will say the people at the state are making some allowances that are making sense so it does feel like there’s some headway,” said Walker.
Johnson said they’re working with applicants on waivers for some parts of the application.
“Throughout this pandemic, as we all know it’s very fluid and things are changing, so we continue to look at these memos, these decisions, lists of waivers to determine if there's a need to waive anything else,” said Johnson.
When asked if the office would consider an indefinite waiver of the entire application, Johnson said it’s something they’re always considering but not something she’s anticipating would happen.
That’s a concern for Cousin, who has pushed for equality in remote learning since this summer; that’s when New Haven announced they’d be fully remote. He said the learning hubs have been successful so far, citing student progress reports.
He said they still get calls daily from parents looking for openings in the hubs. He’s fearful of what would happen if the hubs had to close.
“If these learning hubs are not able to come online, then who’s going to step up to provide the education that our children really need during this season?”
Walker agrees that the need is still there.
“There are families that still have to go to work, and struggling with the reality that they have children that they are either leaving home, or the parents themselves are not going to work,” said Walker.
Johnson points out that not all learning hubs require a daycare license. Those offered by public schools and municipalities and some existing youth organizations are exempt.
In New Haven, city-sponsored learning hubs opened in October and quickly shut down after the numbers of COVID cases began to rise.