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Erie County, Say Yes to set up Virtual Learning hubs for hundreds of Buffalo students

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Families with kids in Buffalo schools will soon have an opportunity to place them in safe virtual learning environments, while solving potentially child care concerns created by the pandemic.

The Virtual Learning Support Centers program was formally introduced Tuesday outside Westside Community Services on Vermont Street, one of approximately 40 sites already committed as hubs. Sites including existing day care centers, community centers, churches, and not-for-profit agencies will provide a space where students in grades kindergarten through eight may engage in their remote classes, eat provided meals and receive emotional and social support.

"We'll be meeting the needs of many different types of families," said Westside Community Services executive director Kate Hilliman. "Families who may not have the time or the capacity to help their children learn remotely, families who need to work and don't have childcare, families who have other childcare duties and responsibilities within their own families. We are looking forward to supporting all of those families."

Virtual learning hub sites will operate beginning 7 a.m. and running as late as 6 p.m. Spaces are available for up to 2,500 Buffalo children.

Say Yes Buffalo is coordinating the program, with Erie County providing $10 million of its federal CARES Act allocation to fund it.

"The program is free to all families with income at or under the 85-percent level of the state median income," said Dan Cross-Viola of Say Yes Buffalo. "For families that are above this threshold, their children can still enroll, but the center may change my chairs a participation fee."

Say Yes provides more details about such income guidelines along with a list of confirmed sites on its website.

Each site will be required to follow strict health and safety protocols consistent with state and federal guidelines.

"We have two janitorial staff on throughout the morning, as well in the afternoon, to be doing constant disinfection, sanitizing, cleanup as well, doing that throughout the day," Hilliman said.

More sites are pending. The county's funding provides the ability to operate up to 52 centers in Buffalo through the end of 2020. Additional sites may be coming to other nearby communities, hinted Erie County Social Services Commissioner Marie Cannon.

"The program will cover the entire county, because we're working with Erie 1 and Erie 2 BOCES, so they develop the same kind of plan to uncover that to cover the entire county," she said.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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