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FBI, DOE investigating potential fraud in Alabama virtual schools

The investigation of the virtual schools, and the allegations of improperly boosting enrollment figures to generate more tax dollars, would be similar to federal investigations of virtual schools in other states. As in those investigations, the alleged wrongdoing in Alabama involves tens of millions of dollars in tax money.

Josh Moon

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(APR GRAPHIC)

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the Pearson company, which operates Alabama Connections Academy told APR on Wednesday that the company is confident that it has never been a focus of the ongoing FBI/DOE investigation of virtual schools, although it has cooperated and provided any information requested and will continue to do so if asked.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Alabama would not comment on the statement from Pearson. However, a source close to that investigation confirmed to APR that Pearson is not a focus at this time.

ORIGINAL STORY:

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Education have been conducting a lengthy and wide-ranging investigation into multiple virtual schools in Alabama, focusing specifically on those schools falsifying student enrollment records to drive up state reimbursements, potentially costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the past five years, several sources and various documents and recordings obtained by APR show.

The investigation, the sources told APR, is centered on schools in Limestone County but is not limited to those schools. The sources each participated in interviews with the FBI and DOE in this investigation and asked for anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs. 

APR was provided a recording of agents from the FBI and DOE conducting a joint interview with officials in Limestone County, and asking specific questions about the virtual schools in those districts, the superintendents in charge and about irregularities involving student enrollments. 

The home of Athens City superintendent Trey Holliday was raided by FBI agents in June, and the Bureau confirmed at the time that the raid was part of an ongoing investigation. 

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In addition, three sources have confirmed to APR that officials working at the Alabama State Department of Education have been interviewed by the FBI and DOE and the state has provided records and other information to aid in the investigation. The sources each have intimate personal knowledge of the investigation, but spoke on condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to provide such details.

When asked for an official comment on the investigation, a spokesperson for ALSDE directed APR to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama. 

A spokesperson for the USA Middle District office declined to comment or confirm the existence of an investigation — a standard response when an investigation is ongoing but has yet to produce indictments — but did acknowledge the raid of Holladay’s house in June.  

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The investigation of the virtual schools, and the allegations of improperly boosting enrollment figures to generate more tax dollars, would be similar to federal investigations of virtual schools in other states. As in those investigations, the alleged wrongdoing in Alabama involves tens of millions of dollars in tax money. 

In less than three years, Limestone’s general fund budget has swelled from a reserve balance of around $2 million to now more than $20 million; Athens has experienced a similar uptick in revenue the last five years. 

Sources told APR that investigators also suspect that there has been illegal personal gain by both school system employees and individuals working with third parties that operated the virtual programs, and indictments could come before the end of the year. 

Virtual Schools

In 2015, the Alabama Legislature passed a virtual school bill, allowing for school districts to operate one of two kinds of virtual schools. Local school boards could decide to operate their own virtual school, contracting with an outside entity for only the software and platform, but otherwise hiring teachers and controlling the school like any other in their district. Or local school districts can contract with an outside entity to provide all of the services — from hiring the teachers and monitoring classroom performance to aligning with state standards and meeting the needs of disabled students — and the local central office would serve as a simple pass-through for payments. 

Those payments are also key. Under that virtual school bill, students enrolled in virtual schools earn the district the same in per-pupil funding as a student enrolled in traditional schools. So, even if a child in the Black Belt is enrolled in a virtual school hundreds of miles away in Limestone County — and several reportedly are — and never sets foot in the county or a local school building, Limestone still gets the $6,000-per-pupil allotment for that student. 

This setup, of course, makes virtual schools extremely profitable — both for local districts and for the outside companies hosting the schools. 

Limestone’s Connections Academy, the largest virtual school in the state with more than 2,500 students enrolled this school year, falls into the second category of virtual schools — one in which the outside company, Pearson, handles all functions and Limestone gets a small percentage each year for serving essentially as a pass-through. APR requested a copy of the Pearson-Limestone contract but it had not been made available prior to publishing. 

Those types of contracts, however, have raised red flags with several local superintendents and even with officials at ALSDE, all of whom see massive potential for fraud and waste. At least two bills have been pushed since the passage of the original virtual schools bill that would close loopholes and put extra safeguards in place. Neither passed. 

“We’ve been sitting on a time bomb, and everyone knew it was ticking,” said one county superintendent. “There has never been enough oversight of these schools. Even when you saw the horror stories in other states, no one did anything.”

As it stands, the third-party companies operating the virtual schools are allowed to make almost every decision, and local officials are oddly and surprisingly unconcerned with how the schools make decisions. Or even what decisions they’re making. 

For example, Limestone County officials, including two superintendents and multiple employees, couldn’t tell APR or the FBI and DOE approximately how many teachers were employed at its virtual school. In addition, they didn’t know how those teachers were hired, if they were required to be certified or if they were adhering to Alabama standards. 

And their inability to answer those fairly basic questions came after Limestone County had been duped once into virtual school fraud scheme that cost the district millions of dollars and more than 100 laptop computers.   

The Investigation

According to Mark Isley, the former human resources director for Limestone County Schools, an investigator from the FBI and one from the DOE showed up unannounced at the system’s central office last September and began grilling then-superintendent Tom Sisk, Isley and others about the virtual school in Limestone County and a similar school in Athens, where Holladay served as superintendent. 

A recording of that interview was later provided anonymously to APR, and the two investigators can be heard asking specific questions about the enrollment figures in Limestone’s virtual school, whether the system had verified the authenticity of each student enrolled and how much interaction the Limestone virtual school had with the Renaissance school in Athens. 

“They clearly knew way more than they let on, and you could see that as the interview progressed and they laid out evidence of fraud taking place,” Isley said. “I was not shocked. I think anyone who was honest would tell you that they either didn’t know hardly anything that was happening in that (virtual) school or they suspected something wasn’t right.”

The two agents also asked Sisk in-depth questions about Limestone’s first attempt at operating a virtual school in the 2016-17 school year. On the recording, Sisk said that he signed a contract with an entity named Educational Opportunities to provide a full virtual school and enrolled more than 200 students. 

“Two to three months into it,” Sisk said, officials from ALSDE contacted him and told him that the students enrolled in the Limestone virtual school were also enrolled in private schools around the state. On the recording, one of the agents asking questions provides Sisk with a letter that was sent in 2017 by Sumter Academy to parents of students at that now-defunct private school. The letter informs parents of a new virtual opportunity in which their students can be “dually enrolled” in both Sumter and a virtual school hosted by Limestone County. The letter also offered free laptops to students who signed up. 

Limestone County never recovered the laptops it provided to Educational Opportunities. 

“I guess we can see where our laptops went,” Sisk says to the agents. 

A week after the interview with the FBI and DOE, Sisk resigned at Limestone County to take a superintendent’s job in Tennessee. He resigned shortly after taking the job when it was learned by that school system that his doctorate degree was allegedly purchased from an online school in Pakistan. 

Reached by phone, Sisk declined to comment, saying “I’m retired now. Limestone has a new superintendent who can answer your questions.” 

The Isley Problem

During the interview with Sisk, it becomes obvious, as the FBI and DOE agents pepper him with questions and press him for specifics, that they suspect a certain level of collusion between Limestone County — or, at the very least, its virtual school provider — and officials at Sumter Academy. The agents press Sisk to explain how Sumter could be offering a stipend and laptops to students who sign up without Limestone being in on the fraud. 

Sisk maintains that he had no clue about any of it and shut it down as soon as he was informed by ALSDE officials of the potential fraud. 

What happened to that potential fraud — and whether it was ever reported or investigated by state or local officials — is unclear. Neither Sisk nor ALSDE would discuss it. But on the recording, Sisk is quite adamant that he knows nothing about what happened to Educational Opportunities and never chased down where the district’s 100 laptops ended up. 

But that virtual school would not be Limestone’s only problem. Following the interview, Isley said he told the FBI and DOE agents of current, equally-troubling issues with Limestone’s current virtual school, Connections Academy. 

Among the issues: Connections was failing to follow guidelines for serving disabled students, putting at risk millions in federal funding, and there was a huge discrepancy between the teacher units for which Pearson, the company that operated Connections Academy, was reporting to the state and the number it appeared to actually employ. 

According to Isley, who was responsible on forms sent to the state for “placing” teachers — essentially the act of accounting for the teacher units that were provided by the state by showing where those teachers were employed within the district — Pearson was claiming more than 100 teacher units, yet Limestone had placed no more than 23. 

“That’s all I could find, and I thought it was weird and that someone should look into it,” Isley said. “I’m in charge of HR, you know. It’s my job to make sure the teachers are there.”

Isley isn’t alone in his concerns. Two other sources, including one long-serving financial officer currently working for a school district in Alabama, viewed Connection Academy’s teacher data and concurred that a large discrepancy exists. 

What that discrepancy means, however, is unclear. On paper, it should be impossible for such a gap, because the state requires each district to submit a detailed report of all teachers employed, their years of service and their certification levels. Those numbers are compared to the teacher-unit funding each district receives, and adjustments are made. 

Still, there seems to be an issue somewhere. Current Limestone County superintendent Randy Shearouse told APR that Connections Academy planned to employ roughly 107 teachers for the upcoming school year. That would be a slight decline in teachers despite an enormous uptick in students — Connections will have nearly 600 additional students this year. 

Shearouse, who was named superintendent in June, said he couldn’t speculate on the numbers because he hadn’t been on the job long enough to dig into them. He also said he was mostly unaware of the investigation of the virtual school, having only heard about it. 

For raising the concerns, Isley was promptly shuffled out at Limestone in a very public fashion. He was placed on leave last January for reasons that the district refused to reveal, although it hinted to media outlets that Isley was the subject of an investigation. (Limestone’s attorney actually argued in a court filing that the district had no duty to inform employees why it placed them on paid leave.) A short time later, the district began termination proceedings against Isley, a former county superintendent who had been on the job less than two years. 

In documents submitted to the state department of education, Limestone listed four reasons for its decision to terminate Isley mid-year, including the very odd charge of improper dumping of a Christmas tree and ornaments at a thrift store and a discrepancy with how Isley documented time off. 

Dates on the supporting documentation, obtained by APR, shows that Mike Owens, who was serving as the acting superintendent at the time, didn’t collect a single piece of evidence to support terminating Isley prior to placing him on leave. In fact, two of the incidents happened months before — one of which Isley discussed with Owens — and didn’t receive a reprimand of any kind. 

Isley eventually settled with the Limestone system and agreed to a forced resignation. He remains unemployed. 

“The guy is a boy scout,” said Isley’s attorney, Shane Sears. “Even when it’s to his own detriment, he’s going to do the right thing and speak up. That’s what happened here. All you need to know about this is how they reacted to what he was saying.”

A Bigger Issue

The investigation being conducted by the FBI and DOE clearly has not stopped in Limestone County. Sources confirmed to APR that in addition to state and Limestone/Athens officials interviewed, the FBI has also talked with people connected to Sumter Academy and to officials at a virtual school in Eufaula, as well as to numerous people affiliated with multiple third-party virtual school providers.

Their focus, in each instance, involves virtual schools inflating enrollment numbers in order to secure more federal, state and local funding. Sources told APR that the FBI and DOE are exploring a variety of avenues by which those numbers have been inflated, including enrolling private school students, homeschool students and prisoners. 

The latter appears to be the primary issue in Athens, three sources familiar with that investigation told APR. The Renaissance Academy, which was started in 2015 in Athens, began enrolling prisoners the same year, pulling in more than 600 enrollees from Alabama’s prisons around the state, and pulling in the $6,000-plus-per-pupil funding that went with them. 

But according to sources, the Renaissance school did a particularly poor job of tracking those prisoners, and investigators have found instances of long-since-released prisoners still being on the Renaissance rolls. 

“Dr. Holladay has been an educator for over thirty-five years,” said Holladay’s attorney, Joe Espy. “There are no charges pending against him and if any are filed, he will vigorously defend them.”

Holladay is not alone in hiring legal representation. At least two other individuals involved in either the Limestone County or Athens investigations have hired Montgomery attorneys. 

Whatever comes of potential criminal charges, though, there is little doubt that state lawmakers have to find ways to secure the virtual school setup, and to instill some level of oversight. 

“This is like the wild west out there right now,” said a longtime ALSDE employee. “People have quickly figured out that no one is watching what’s going on here and they’re taking advantage. We’re talking about millions of dollars lost to fraud. And, oh, by the way, the schools they’re providing aren’t great either. This can’t go on.”

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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New website for state resources for children, families launches

The website provides access to all the state’s resources for children and their families, including child care, education, family services and health services.

Eddie Burkhalter

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A screengrab of the Alabama Family Central website.

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced the creation of a centralized website for the state’s social service programs and services for children and families. 

Alabama Family Central was created through a $500,000 allocation by the state Legislature from the state’s Education Trust Fund budget and provides access to all the state’s resources for children and their families, including child care, education, family services and health services, according to Ivey’s office. 

“Alabama Family Central will ensure that all parents and children in our state have access to crucial information and resources from numerous state agencies and non-profit organizations,” Ivey said in a statement. “Great parents need strong partners, and I am proud of the strong collaboration between the state and private sector to offer a one-stop shop of assistance for Alabama families. I appreciate the Alabama Partnership for Children spearheading this effort.”

In addition to pointing visitors to state programs and services, the website also points families who are undertaking remote school learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic to A+ Education Partnership, which advocates for quality education in Alabama.

The state website specifically directs visitors to a page that provides COVID-19 resources for parents, including sections on guidance and decision-making, supporting learning from home and coping and well-being. 

“When I learned that our students would be learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my heart immediately went out to the parents who would need assistance teaching their children at home,” said State Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, in a statement. “I requested funding to set up such assistance, so I humbly thank Governor Kay Ivey and Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, for granting that request. It was a pleasure working with A+ Education Partnership and the Alabama Partnership for Children to incorporate this idea into their programs, and I look forward to its expansion. Every child deserves access to the highest quality education, no matter their circumstances.”

The Alabama Family Central website includes:

  • A+ Education Partnership
  • Alabama Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention
  • Alabama Department of Early Education
  • Alabama Department of Education
  • Alabama Department of Human Resources
  • Alabama Department of Mental Health
  • Alabama Department of Public Health
  • Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services
  • Alabama Medicaid

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Friday is deadline for Shelby County remote learning students to decide to return or not

Some parents have expressed concern that they have to make a decision so early.

Brandon Moseley

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Sept. 25 is the deadline for Shelby County schools students who have begun the school year to decide whether they want to return for the next nine weeks or continue learning remotely.

Starting on Monday, Sept. 14, the students who chose the traditional model of learning transitioned from two days a week of in-person instruction to five days a week as part of the “Back Together” phase of the Shelby County Schools reopening plan.

“Traditional in-person students may transition to remote learning if you have concerns about returning to school five days a week,” said Superintendent Dr. Lewis Brooks in a letter to parents. “Students who are currently remote students must continue in that platform but will be able to transition to in-person instruction starting October 12, 2020. Please reach out to your local school principal if you are a remote learner and plan to return to traditional in-person instruction at the end of the grading period on or before September 25, 2020.”

Some parents have expressed concern that they have to make a decision so early.

Shelby County Schools spokesperson Cindy Warner told APR that this decision is for the next nine weeks.

Students in traditional at-school learning can switch to online learning at any time — just like a student who tests positive for the coronavirus.

But parents are being asked to make the decision if they are going to stay online or not because the system doesn’t want students going back and forth between online classes and traditional at-school classes.

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Warner said that 25 percent of students are currently in online instruction but from what they have heard from parents, they expect that many of those students will return.

Warner said that if a parent elects for their children to remain in online learning, they will be given the option of going to traditional in-person learning after this nine-week grading period ends.

Warner said that they did not know how many Shelby County students have tested positive for the coronavirus because the state is going to soon be reporting that data on their dashboard.

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A parent at Oak Mountain High School shared an email with APR in which the school announced that that high school alone had 20 students who have tested positive and are in isolation, plus 68 students who are in quarantine because they have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Shelby County has the fifth-highest number of coronavirus cases with 5,116 cases including 299 in the past week. Some 41 Shelby County residents have died from COVID-19 — 14th highest in the state.

At least 2,507 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, four of them children age 0 to 17.

“If your child is exhibiting symptoms, please keep him/her home. If your child has tested positive, please contact the school nurse,” Oak Mountain High School wrote to parents.

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Dr. Chris Cox appointed interim president at Bevill State Community College

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Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker on Wednesday announced the appointment of Dr. Chris Cox as interim president of Bevill State Community College. Cox will serve in the role until a permanent president is named at the completion of a presidential search. 

Cox has more than 24 years of higher education administration experience and currently serves as interim president at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College. Prior to his role at LBW, Cox served as the executive director of workforce solutions and innovations for the Alabama Community College System.

“Time and time again, Dr. Cox has proven to be a capable leader and I’m confident Bevill State will be well-served by his time as Interim President,” Baker said. “Chris’s innovative and enthusiastic approach is a benefit to students, faculty, and staff alike.”  

A Geneva, Alabama, native, Cox began his career as a teacher and coach at Dale County High School in Midland City. He later served as assistant principal at Geneva High School in Geneva and principal at Pinedale Elementary School in Enterprise.

Prior to joining the ACCS, Cox spent time in Oxford, first as Oxford High School’s principal and then as assistant superintendent for the Oxford City Board of Education. Cox earned a bachelor of science in social science from Troy State University and a master of science in educational administration from Alabama State University.

Cox earned his doctorate of philosophy in educational administration from Auburn University.

“I am ready to hit the ground running to cover the more than 4,600 square miles that Bevill State and its campuses serve in the great state of Alabama,” Cox said. “Bevill State is a special place and I look forward to working alongside the faculty, staff, and administration to best serve our students. Go Bears!”

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Cox’s tenure at Bevill State Community College will begin on Thursday, Oct. 1.

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Alabama declines to release COVID-19 data associated with child care centers

APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.

Eddie Burkhalter

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It was unclear Tuesday the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 there have been among staff, children and relatives associated with child care facilities in Alabama, because the Alabama Department of Public Health declined to release that data.

“All cases of COVID-19 are required to be reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health under notifiable disease laws. ADPH is aware of cases in entities such as child care but does not report separately from other data,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer, in a message to APR on Tuesday.

APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.

Landers noted that ADPH does provide the percentage of cases among age ranges, however. There had been approximately 2,628 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama children 4-years-old and younger as of Monday, according to ADPH’s dashboard, but the department doesn’t specify which of those cases are associated with child care centers, and it was unclear how many cases there have been among relatives or workers connected to child care centers.

While children 10-years-old and older can efficiently transmit COVID-19 to others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a recent report note that “limited data are available on SARS-CoV-2 transmission from young children, particularly in child care settings.”

The Sept, 18 CDC report looked at three COVID-19 outbreaks in child care facilities in Salt Lake County, Utah, during April 1 through July 10, and found that the 12 children who contracted the disease spread it to at least 12 others outside the centers, and one parent was hospitalized with coronavirus.

In one facility, researchers confirmed five cases among workers and two among children. One of those children, aged 8 months, transmitted COVID-19 to both parents, the report notes. Many of the children had mild symptoms or none at all, researchers found.

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“COVID-19 is less severe in children than it is in adults, but children can still play a role in transmission,” the report reads. “The infected children exposed at these three facilities had mild to no symptoms. Two of three asymptomatic children likely transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to their parents and possibly to their teachers.”

While Alabama’s Department of Public Health isn’t releasing data on cases associated with child care centers, many other states are, including Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts.

There have been 332 confirmed cases, two deaths and 14 separate outbreaks associated with child care centers in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

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Health officials in California’s Sonoma County traced 30 cases of coronavirus to one child at a child-care center in the county, where 16 students, 11 relatives and three workers tested positive, according to The Los Angeles Times. In addition to that outbreak, there have been 62 other cases at 13 child-care facilities in the county, including 27 family members, 10 workers and 25 students, with 381 cases of children younger than 17 still under investigation, the newspaper reported on Sept. 21.

Reopening child care centers can be done safely, according to an Aug. 28 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which that found that in Rhode Island, which reopened child care centers on June 1, there were just 52 confirmed and probable cases among staff, children and relatives across 29 centers between June 1 and July 31.

The report noted that Rhode Island at first limited centers to 12 or fewer students, required staff and students to not move between groups in centers and “universal use of masks for adults, daily symptom screening of adults and children, and enhanced cleaning and disinfection according to CDC guidelines.”

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on March 19 issued an order closing child care centers through April 5, with exceptions for facilities that provided services to first responders and other workers deemed essential. Harris on March 27 issued a supplemental order allowing centers that cared for 11 or fewer children to reopen.

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday published a press release touting the number of open child care centers across Alabama. According to the department, 76 percent of all child care facilities in Alabama are open.

“Alabama is well on our way to reopening the necessary number of child care facilities to enable parents to return to work and resume a more normal schedule,” said Alabama DHR commissioner Nancy Buckner, in a statement. “This is the sixth survey we have conducted and each one has shown tremendous growth in the numbers of open facilities. We have worked hard to encourage child care providers to open by providing support in the form of grants and supplies.”

Asked whether the department is aware of the number of COVID-19 cases among children, staff or relatives associated with child care centers, a DHR spokesperson responded in a message to APR on Monday that “We don’t track that.”

While child care plays a critical role for working parents across the country, the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns have put a strain on the businesses, according to a July 13 study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which surveyed more than 5,000 child care facilities in every state.

Among the child care centers surveyed, two out of five said they would have to close without more public assistance, while half of the minority-owned centers said they have to close without more aid, according to the report. A quarter of child care workers said they’d applied for or received unemployment benefits, and 73 percent of centers said they have or will begin laying off workers and/or make pay cuts.

An Aug. 26 study by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center found that 32 percent of parents polled said their child care centers were closed, 14 percent of them permanently, and 22 percent of the parents said they could not return to work in person without childcare.

Even when child care is available to parents, many are worried about sending their children back while COVID-19 continues to spread. Of those asked, 77 percent of parents said they were concerned that sending their kids back would increase the risk of exposing their family to COVID-19.

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