Pandemic forces partial closure of longtime after-school care provider
The Learning Camp is left with no choice but to close three of its four school programs
Ann Cathcart and her husband Tom have been providing essential child care services to families in Eagle County since 1996.
Initially, the couple was running a residential summer camp in Eagle and Gypsum for students with moderate needs and learning disabilities. But in 2004, they were brought into Brush Creek Elementary School to provide an after-school program for all students.
Quickly, the Cathcarts’ business, The Learning Camp, was providing after-school care to four elementary schools downvalley: Brush Creek, Eagle Valley, Red Hill and Gypsum. (While the business didn’t run a program at Gypsum Elementary, it transported students from the school to Red Hill.) In 2015, the camp retired its summer program, but remained dedicated to its after-school programs.
The business served a crucial need in the valley — providing outdoor play as well as academic support — five days a week from 2:30 to 6 p.m. at the schools. Each program served between 30 and 35 students.
However, after almost two decades of providing these services to Eagle County families and children, the pandemic produced a major setback for The Learning Camp.
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“When COVID hit in March 2020, all of the schools closed and all of my programs closed with it and all of my staff was left unemployed,” Ann Cathcart said. “There has been so much agony. We’ve loved serving these families and we are sorry to let them down.”
Even once students went back into schools in the fall of 2020, Cathcart — in collaboration with school principals and administrators — made the difficult decision not to return to the schools. According to Cathcart, this decision was primarily centered on maintaining the small cohorts established by the schools to prioritize student and staff safety, something that could not be done if the students were grouped outside of their cohorts during after-school programming.
“We graciously bowed out of all the schools for the last year. And in turn, we lost all our staff,” she said, adding that the most critical loss was her directors. “One had moved to Tennessee and the other had accepted another job with a different schedule that allowed him after-school care.”
After the pandemic, Cathcart is the only director standing. And in June, the Cathcarts made the decision — which Ann called “agonizing” — and notified the schools that The Learning Camp would only return to Brush Creek Elementary this school year.
“I’ve been serving children in the valley for over 25 years and it breaks our hearts to be in this position,” she said, adding that she’s been around long enough to see some of the first children she served have children of their own.
What they’re up against
In her search for employees, Cathcart was only able to find four employees to staff the remaining program at Brush Creek, including herself.
“I have been working diligently to find directors for the other schools and I’ve been unable to get them. But more than that, I haven’t even had applications for teachers or assistant teachers to fill the ratios that we need to serve the public,” she said. “It’s not because we’re lazy or tired, it’s because we can’t get the help we need to provide the service that families deserve and that the state of Colorado requires that we provide through our child care licensing, which is a huge piece.”
While the staffing challenges — including affordable housing and livable wages — that are facing all employers here are certainly a factor, Cathcart noted specific challenges she’s had with The Learning Camp.
“In the child care business, everything is licensed — the assistant teacher, the teachers, the director and they all have to meet standards or we’re not able to serve the community. And that’s dictated by the state of Colorado licensing for child care,” Cathcart said.
Cathcart said that even for applicants with a college degree, there’s still a great deal of training and classes — she estimated 5,000 hours’ worth — that go into “getting a person trained to be in front of school-aged children.”
She added that she understands the need for these requirements. “These are the facts and this is what employers like myself are up against.”
And certainly other child care employers are facing these challenges. Recently, the Vail Child Care Center announced it would no longer be able to provide its services on Friday as many other providers grapple with making similar decisions.
Even without any applicants — let alone applicants with the appropriate qualifications, Cathcart has another employment challenge. Prior to the pandemic, Cathcart noted that most of her employees were parents and seniors, due to the days and hours her program ran.
“Employee housing is imperative, but in my case, I don’t think it’s about housing, I think it’s about fear of being in the schools,” she said. “My hope is that as we get away from the pandemic, the fears people have will be lifted by seeing the job that everybody does to keep kids safe. I want kids to get back to school, I don’t want there to be any fear.”
Cathcart was quick to say she didn’t want to put the blame on anyone — not the state, not the school district — for the series of unfortunate events that have put her in this position.
“It was the pandemic, it changed our world. That’s how I look at it right now,” she reflected. “My heart is breaking.”
There will certainly be a gap in after-school care left by The Learning Camp. Eagle County Schools also relies on Vail Valley Foundation’s YouthPower365’s after-school program PwrHrs to provide this service.
While PwrHrs didn’t run at Eagle Valley Elementary last year due to COVID-19 concerns, it will be returning, not only at this school, but will continue to be available at all the district’s elementary and middle schools. The program runs from about 3 to 5 p.m. and largely employs district teachers, providing them an extra stipend to work for the program.
Melissa Wills, after-school senior manager of YouthPower365’s PwrHrs program, said while staffing may be an issue at every school going into this year, she is confident the program can run with a sufficient amount of staff this year.
Outside of The Learning Camp, Eagle County Schools has seen other changes. Not only is it having trouble staffing its own early-childhood education programs — with 15 staffing vacancies ahead of the school year — but its partners are facing challenges.
The Family Learning Center, which has served as a partner of the district’s early-childhood education department, is not returning. Since 2011, the provider has partnered with the district to provide Colorado Preschool Programming.
In Eagle County Schools’ 2021 Head Start Community Assessment, the Family Learning Center is listed as providing eight slots (out of the district’s 81 total spots) for Colorado Preschool Programming and Early Childcare At-Risk Enhancement services.
According to an email from Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer, the district did not renew its agreement with The Family Learning Center “because they were not able to fully meet the agreed-upon scope of work from prior years. We are hopeful to pick up our partnership with them in future school years.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.