Day care camp operated by city of Santa Rosa offers a leg up on distance learning

The city of Santa Rosa program provides recreational opportunities in addition to distance learning supervision.|

Finley Community Center remains closed to the general public, but passersby might spy children playing around the Santa Rosa complex on weekday afternoons.

One recent day, a group of children were out on the grass, gleefully throwing freshly sanitized dodgeballs, supervised by a pair of adults. A few yards away on the other side of a metal fence, about two dozen others were splashing in the Finley Aquatic Center pool, with a floating rope dividing the waters to keep each group of 12 separated.

Only hours earlier, all 96 students were seated, socially distanced, in makeshift classrooms at the Finley Community Center, working on whatever their teacher on the other side of a Zoom call might have assigned them.

Part classroom and part camp, the “Distance Learning Camp and Care” program run by the city Recreation and Parks Department seeks to fill a gap in child care created by the closure of school campuses during the coronavirus pandemic. While schools are prohibited from resuming in-person classes until the pandemic ebbs, public health officials have allowed camps to reopen under guidelines designed to reduce the spread of the virus.

The city created the program in consultation with local schools to provide a haven for students who needed a safe place to attend online classes during the day. It is an oasis of social interaction and academic support, as students and families across Santa Rosa wrestle with the innate challenges of online classes, from technology snags to child care needs.

“I think the kids are thriving,” said Ryan Sheppard, one of the city employees overseeing the program. He’s also a 20-plus year veteran of the classroom and teaches chemistry and economics at Rancho Cotate High School.

The participating kids, Sheppard said, are “loving coming.”

”They’re happy to see us, they’re sad to go,” he said. “We’re starting to see kids buy into it.”

Every weekday since Aug. 24, the students, who range from first through fifth grade, arrive at the community center toting laptops, headphones and other school supplies. Masks donned, they take their seats at socially distanced desks in "hubs“ — what the state refers to as cohorts — of 12.

The format is similar to that of another program in Healdsburg, which has opened doors to 72 students.

In many cases, students in the same hub might have been classmates in their regular school classrooms, said Joanna Moore, recreational coordinator for the Neighborhood Services division of Recreation and Parks.

The mission of her segment of the department focuses on making recreation opportunities available to children affected by poverty, crime, drug use or other disadvantages. Throughout the year, that work involves close partnership with local schools.

When the city was considering launching a day care program earlier this summer, Moore said, she and other Neighborhood Services staff reached out to their school partners for input.

“It was more just to reach out and say, ’Hey, this is what we’re thinking of doing ... How can we support you guys?’” Moore said. “’What are your needs, what are your community’s needs?’”

School staff referred students into the day care program, which offers financial assistance. The city made $5,000 worth of $500 scholarships available to 10 families during this first seven-week period of day care.

Without financial assistance, the day care costs families $1,750 for the seven weeks, or $250 per week.

Jean Walker, principal of Meadow View Elementary School, said her recommendations prioritized students in foster care as well as those experiencing homelessness and children of essential workers. In total, 36 Meadow View students are enrolled in the city’s day care program. But in a school of about 400 students, the demand naturally exceeds the slots available.

“The only thing I can say is, there’s not enough room,” Walker said. “But at least I know I have 36 there and they’re in a safe place. And it’s a great partnership between the school site and the neighborhood. It’s a great opportunity for my families.”

She and other school staff are making noticeably fewer phone calls about absences to the homes of the students who are attending the Distance Learning Camp and Care.

“I think it has a huge impact,” Moore said. “Because with some of the families that we are working with, they don’t have the Wi-Fi connection at home, or maybe they don’t have someone that can help support (students) during their learning.”

About 19 students on a wait list to get a spot in the day care will likely get their chance to attend beginning the week of Sept. 28. Another two hubs of 12 students will open that week, meeting at the Steele Lane Community Center, city staff said.

For now, staff are preparing for another seven-week program that will launch Oct. 12. Ten of the $500 scholarships will be available to families then.

Throughout his time working with the city and as a teacher, Sheppard said, nothing has presented quite an equivalent challenge. He and other Recreation and Parks employees are planning for next summer’s activities even while balancing their compounded duties during the fall.

“It’s been the hardest yet most rewarding time I’ve been with the city,” he said.

Find more information on the day care, including how to sign up, on the city’s website.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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