Lab school pivots to help working families

Kids Club update

The YSS Kids Club, which has four classrooms on the first floor of Ross Hall, is still accepting elementary-age children into its program. The program helps children with their required online schoolwork and provides virtual learning support to those who choose to distance learn.

It is an email Jennifer Van Ryswyk plans to save.

The director of the Child Development Laboratory School knew the pandemic was putting significant strain on parents of school-age children trying to balance jobs with their children's virtual learning.

Van Ryswyk and university leaders decided to expand the lab school's offerings to provide educational instruction to children in kindergarten through third grade while the Ames Community School District (ACSD) conducts hybrid and online classes in response to the coronavirus. That is in addition to the programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers the lab school already provides.

"One family that is enrolled made a comment in an email, 'If you didn't make this opportunity available to me, I was considering quitting my job to stay at home and educate my kids,'" Van Ryswyk said. "The goal of this is to be able to support families."

Filling a need

There are 13 school-age children at the lab school, four of whom are set to return to ACSD in-person instruction this month. To mitigate the chance of spreading the coronavirus, no more children will be added.

"This is temporary, not permanent," Van Ryswyk said of expanding instruction to older students. "We are taking our cues from the Ames school district. It could be that this program ends the first day of spring semester, it could end in May. After that we will reevaluate, but we won't do a summer program."

The program was offered to the Iowa State and Ames communities through a pair of emails. The first went to previous lab school participants and another to a listserv of people at the university interested in helping parents, supported by university human resources program specialists Cris Broshar and Julia Graden. Consistent with the lab school's process, families were selected through a lottery.

The children attend weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and the teachers give them as much of a school environment as possible. Children learn through online instruction and packets provided by the ACSD. Lab school teachers supplement the instruction and help children complete their homework, taking that burden off working parents.

"Our kindergarteners are learning how to be school-agers, and our third graders are fairly tech-savvy," Van Ryswyk said.

The children's temperatures are checked to begin the day and again before going home. There have been no coronavirus cases reported. Cyclones Care measures like hand-washing and physical distancing are observed. 

Making it happen

Van Ryswyk said the lab school was able to expand its offerings when enrollment dropped this fall.  Some parents didn't send their young children to the lab school either because they are working from home or don't feel comfortable doing so during the pandemic.

"When we looked at the numbers we realized we had this space we did not think we would have," Van Ryswyk said. "We were already hearing from parents and friends of school-age children who were just stressed out."

There was plenty of work that needed to be done before classes began for the older children, but modifying the space was not part of it. The temporary program is located in the Palmer Human Development and Family Services Building in a space that previously was a public school kindergarten and intended for a school-age program.

"We didn't have to do anything to the space. The desks and chairs were already the right height," Van Ryswyk said.

The school has 10 teachers and four classrooms -- for infants/toddlers, 2-year-olds,  preschool/prekindergarteners and school-age children. Two licensed teachers work with the older children. The mission of the lab school is to provide Iowa State students with hands-on experience working with and observing young children, but ISU students and parents are not allowed in the classrooms during the pandemic.