A. F. Ames Elementary School, Riverside. | (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Half-day kindergarten can be a childcare nightmare problem for working parents, especially now that more offices are requiring that workers come to work in person. And many parents in Riverside are frustrated that Elementary School District 96 is not more involved in facilitating care options for kindergarten students. 

Because District 96 is one of the few that does not have full-day kindergarten, parents of kindergartners have long scrambled to find daycare for the half day when their kids are not in school. 

“This is a real problem for working parents,” said Alison Costanzo, one of the parents frustrated by the lack on involvement from District 96. “It’s great if parents can afford a liv- in nanny, it’s great if they can send their child to private school, [but] that’s not every parent in the district.” 

All other elementary school districts in Landmark’s circulation area provide all-day kindergarten. Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 started full-day kindergarten two years ago, while LaGrange-Brookfield District 102 gives parents the option of sending their kids to full-day or half-day kindergarten. 

Western Springs District 101 and Hinsdale District 181 are the only nearby school districts that do not offer full-day kindergarten.

The desire for all-day kindergarten has been constant among many District 96 parents for at least a decade. Next year, the district will convene a task force to study the issue and make a recommendation for the 2022-23 school year.

In the past, District 96 has often not had the space to offer full-day kindergarten, but recent additions at the district’s schools lessen that issue. For the coming school year, however, social distancing requirements make full-day kindergarten unfeasible District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said.

“We’re using every corner of our buildings still,” Ryan-Toye said.

The kindergarten task force will look at the issue of full day kindergarten from three perspectives — that of facilities, costs and educational and socio-emotional benefit.

Ryan-Toye said research is inconclusive about the educational benefits of full-day kindergarten.

“The academic and social-emotional research is complicated, because it both speaks to the value and some concerns,” Ryan-Toye said.

Whatever happens in 2022-23 won’t help the working parents who are now scrambling to find care for their kindergarteners who will be in school for just half a day next year. 

Some parents enroll their kindergarteners at St. Mary School which has a full-day program. Many preschools have been shut down during the pandemic making this perennial problem even worse than normal. 

None of 23 preschools that the district contacted in February have responded to the district’s inquiries about whether they have a half-day option for kindergarten students. 

The LaGrange YMCA used to run a preschool program that accommodated kindergarteners from District 96, but has discontinued that program. 

To help provide some support, the Riverside Parks and Recreation Department stepped up to extend the hours of its KinderKids Club program by 2.5 hours so it will run until 5:30 p.m.to accommodate the needs of kindergarten students. 

“We did want to address the urgency that many parents feel,” said Ron Malchiodi, the director of Riverside Parks and Recreation. “Basically, what we’ve done is take our existing KinderKids Club program and tack an additional extension at the end.”

Under that program, kindergarteners who attend school in the morning can spend the rest of the day at the Parks and Rec program. Registration starts for the KinderKids Club program on July 6, when the department’s headquarters at 43 E. Quincy St. will be open for registration from 7:30 a.m. until 7 p.m.

But the KinderKids Club program, which has been around for at least eight years, does not run in the morning and can’t help families with kids in afternoon kindergarten. Six of the nine kindergarten classes in District 96 next year will run in the morning next year.

Costanzo and other parents have repeatedly emailed Ryan-Toye and members of the District 96 Board of Education trying to get district officials to be more proactive in addressing the needs of working families with kindergarten students. They have been frustrated by the responses they have received.

“The district continues to kick this can down the road,” Costanzo said.

After exchanging a number of emails, Ryan-Toye refused a request to meet with the parents, saying that that after communicating with the parents and hearing their concerns, she decided that a meeting would not be productive.

“We have communicated quite a bit and they’re really wanting to meet to talk to me about how I can create childcare programs,” Ryan-Toye said. “I said I felt that the meeting would result in more misunderstanding and frustration than solutions.”

Ryan-Toye said that while she and other district officials are sympathetic to the frustrations and concerns that the parents were expressing, the district’s focus is on education, not child care.

“We’ve been clear that our mission is the educational program,” Ryan-Toye said. “We see ourselves in the position of providing high-quality education, and if there’s a partnership that we can work to extend or something to help our families more we’ll look at that.”