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Parents protest after CMC closes The Children’s School for academic year

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

On July 1 parents and caregivers of students at The Children’s School at Claremont McKenna College received a surprise email announcing that the school would not reopen for the fall 2020 or spring 2021 semesters.

“We are committed to your child’s learning, growth, and safety at The Children’s School. We write today with what we know will be a disappointing update on our plans for fall. We wanted to give you as much notice as possible that The Children’s School will remain closed for the 2020-21 academic year,” read an email sent by CMC President Hiram Chodosh and Vice President of Business and Chief Operating Officer Coreen Rodgers.

The school has been closed since the coronavirus pandemic reached Southern California in March. The college has stated that they informed parents of the extended closure as soon as the decision was made so that alternative arrangements could be made for TCS students.

Even though the college’s notification is only a month old, it is already a bit dated because in that email, Mr. Chodosh and Ms. Rodgers expressed cautious optimism that CMC would offer in-person instruction this fall, an idea that was quashed last Friday.

“Given the recent, substantial increases in COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death rates...and even more decisively, the absence of necessary state and county authorization for residential, in-person higher education programs to reopen, we will not be allowed to resume on-campus learning in the fall,” CMC officials said in last week’s statement.

The Children’s School consists of four different classes of up to 18 children per class held in a small cottages designed especially for the care of young children, according to the school’s website. The preschool, which serves children ages two to six, has been around in some form or another since the 1930s.

“These cottages support carefully planned programs that include activities in language, art, science, math, cooking, dramatic play, music and movement,” read an introduction on the TCS website. “Our teachers do lesson planning weekly, usually around a theme. They plan activities that reinforce the theme and provide integrated experiences.”

The Children’s School is open to all families, not just those affiliated with the Claremont Colleges. However, because of its location on the corner of Sixth Street and Claremont Boulevard, many students are the children of staff, students or faculty.

“The news was shocking and heartbreaking. I feel that if the school closes, they more than likely will not reopen as the teachers are being let go. The school is an institution of valued knowledge for children and has been part of the fabric of Claremont for over 80 years,” parent Cynthia Luquin told the COURIER.

CMC officials tried to alleviate parents’ fears that the school would be closed indefinitely.

“We know how special The Children’s School is to our community and the pressures placed on families due to the countywide closures of so many schools. We decided to close The Children’s School for this school year because it was important to put the health and safety of our families and our staff first.

“We, too, are facing the disappointment of not being allowed to bring our students back in August. Our current plan is to reopen The Children’s School in the fall of 2021 if the public health situation improves by then,” CMC officials said in an email to the COURIER.

During a meeting with several parents on Wednesday each expressed how unique TCS is among area pre-schools and that much of the credit goes to the teachers, including longtime director Janet Dryer. The parents expressed frustration that the school’s continuity would be interrupted and feared that it would never be the same.

“When we received the news on July 1st that the school would be closed for the entire year, we were shocked and heartbroken. I can’t overemphasize how special this school is and how incredible its teachers are,” parent Jennifer McCann said in an email.

PhD student and parent Jessica Diaz expressed concern about losing staff members.

“The school is made by the people, but they all have to find a job for a year,” she said. “It won’t reopen as the same school, it will reopen as a new school.”

The campus itself is special as well with buildings constructed specifically for little children including restrooms with tiny toilets.

A number of parents expressed skepticism that the school would reopen, in part because the large lot it sits on would be a prime location for additional student housing. The pandemic is a convenient excuse to set those plans in motion, they said.

“I think the school is on the chopping block and this is just an opportune time to do it. That is my opinion,” parent Alice Marie Perreault said.

Part of that skepticism might be driven by CMC’s plan to repurpose some of the buildings as a COVID-19 clinic and testing site during the upcoming academic year. Part of the repurposing would include making the restrooms at TCS suitable for adults. However, any changes could be easily reversed, college officials emphasized.

“Our most immediate plan is to accommodate a nurse and medical assistant to support daily screening and testing to assure the safety of our essential on-campus faculty and staff. The front office and adjoining parking lot are a private and quiet place for our community to receive clinical support and services during the COVID crisis. This is an important safety feature for returning students in the spring,” Director of News and Media Relations Gilien Silsby told the COURIER on behalf of the college.

In an attempt to get the decision reversed or at least reconsidered, TCS parent Josh Rogers launched a Change.org petition that as of Wednesday evening had 775 signatures.

“This decision came as a shock. With one email, the CMC administration disrupted lives and damaged a beloved institution. It is our sincere hope that the support for this petition will convince you to take a step back from the seemingly drastic decision to close completely for the coming year and instead to put together a more inclusive process that considers intermediate and phased solutions,” the petition read. 

The petition also expresses “deep disappointment” in the manner in which CMC handled the announcement. According to the petition, the decision seemed to have been made without consulting teachers and parents, and appears to be based on factors other than public health—a claim the college flatly denies.

CMC maintains that the decision to close TCS was solely based on the public health risks and uncertainties associated with COVID-19 pandemic.

“The college’s good faith and legitimate concerns about the health and safety risks associated with operating the Children’s School next year have only been reinforced during the past several weeks as the conditions in the LA County region continue to worsen. The college understands the disappointment of the community. The decision was not easy, and made only after careful consideration of all possible options,” college officials said.

On Wednesday a handful of parents attached protest signs to the fence at The Children’s School with slogans that read, among others, “Do not demolish our tiny toilets.”

One tot sitting on her mother’s shoulders announced, “No justice, no peace.”

Ms. Diaz had her hands full as she tried to corral her two-year-old daughter. She said that working from home because of the coronavirus only makes childcare more important.

“The need is going to increase,” she said “Try teaching a class with a two-year-old in the room, it’s not possible. You saw her for three minutes—try doing that all day.”

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