Covid-19 Uniquely Challenging for Parks & Rec Districts Filling School Closure Gaps

By Kristin Withrow posted 01-29-2021 01:40 PM


Jim Wheeler, Ann Willmann and Kevin Kalman are all General Managers at Recreation and Park Districts in different geographic regions of the state, but they’ve recently faced the same difficult challenge. And they aren’t alone. The big question they, and others like them, have grappled with since school campuses were forced to close is: How can Park and Recreation Districts offer programs that help families during distance learning hours under the normal district licensing guidelines? The answer: It’s complicated.

Recreation and park districts all over the State of California operate under licensing rules designed to ensure the district programs do not conflict with, interfere with, or compete with school districts. To achieve this, park district guidelines allow operation of “school time” programs limited to a total of 14 weeks of the year, with a 20 hour per week maximum. This limitation of 14 weeks results in program offerings during Summer, Spring and Winter school holidays. It is a harmonious approach for family and child support during “normal” times.

Anthony Tannehill, one of CSDA’s Legislative Representatives, responded to the situation by pulling together a coalition of government agencies and advocacy groups to work through the challenge and give guidance to the districts. Recognizing that this is just one area of our lives that is decidedly “not normal” during Covid-19, the Department of Social Services has been working with park districts and school districts to address the licensing guidelines to provide a path forward that works for the communities while still ensuring the highest standards for public health are being met.

When schools closed during the pandemic, the normal guidelines posed difficulties to districts responding to the dire need for school time help in their communities. While the pandemic is being brought under control and until schools can safely reopen, the State of California, Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Social Services all recognize the need for intermediate allowances to get these helpful programs into operation. In order to be granted more programmatic time, the solution was for districts to complete a process for a Child Attestation Waiver monitored by the Department of Social Services. There can be more than 20 steps involved, depending on the individual needs of the program and the starting point of the district.

There are many recreation and park districts in California that need to offer programs in response to the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the closure of school campuses. The families they serve need their children to have a safe place to be while the parents are at work, and the kids need help with their distance learning. These programs must be affordable and available so parents can get back to work knowing their kids are cared for and their earnings aren’t being consumed by private tutoring.

Hayward’s District General Manager, Jim Wheeler, has made the commitment to his staff and community to find their way through the ins and outs of the tedious process. “We will go through the rigorous process. We refuse to give up. We will continue for as long as the community needs it,” said Wheeler, noting that his district serves over 300,000 people and includes the lowest income demographics in Alameda County. He knows the families they serve must have low cost options for their kids to be successful at school while their primary caregivers are at work. His district has created a program called “Distance Learning Hubs” that incorporates all the Department of Public Health Covid-19 safety precautions they used in their summer programs with great success. They serve a large area, so some of the waiver items were already in place and only needed minor alterations. For example, emergency evacuation routes had to be identified specific to the area in which the school day program would operate. Other items were more difficult and at the time of this article they were still working through some final steps.

In the north state, General Manager Ann Willmann’s Chico Area Recreation and Park District is jumping the same hurdles. The largest obstacle so far has been the requirement for heightened background checks. The districts’ regular guidelines require any staff member working with or around children to complete a “Live Scan” background checking process that includes fingerprinting. The Child Attestation Waiver requires a more detailed check that also carries a hefty price tag. Willmann has estimated this regulation alone, in her district which normally serves 1,000 children, would incur $5,000 in fees to the district. For a program that is partly fee based and partly grant based, the added cost is simply unaffordable. They refer to the program as “School Time Care” and it operates during normal school day hours. The Covid-19 precautions have forced them to cap the School Time program to 170 participants. They also offer an “After School” program and are partnering with the local school district that is serving 350 children. All these programs incorporate the same Covid-19 safety standards the district used in their summer programs, which resulted in zero cases of Covid-19 despite operating at capacity.

In southern California, Desert Recreation District General Manager Kevin Kalman serves a community of 380,000 people spread across 1,800 square miles. Their program, aptly titled “Ed-Rec Connect” is working smoothly after going through the waiver process. His advice to other districts in the state, “be patient and persistent. Get to know your local DSS representative as they can be your best advocate.”

There are two things these agencies all agree on: This process is laborious and detailed, and it’s worth it to keep these crucial programs running for the community they serve.

If you are a Recreation & Parks District professional and would like to establish a relationship with your local advocate at the Department of Social Services, visit