A proposed new summer program could bring Augusta youths, and their parents, some free relief from the COVID-19 isolation blues.

It wouldn’t be entirely new, but rather the return of a once-popular program in which city staff and several high-school and college-aged workers would offer 6- to 12-year-olds activities in five city neighborhood parks with playgrounds.

The goal of the program, Mayor David Rollins said, is to give local youths safe activities to do and somewhere to go, and some much-needed — even if socially distanced — socialization. Many children have been isolated from each other since school classrooms closed in mid-March due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

The basketball backboards are gone, as seen in this Tuesday photo, at McCalls Park in Augusta. But the playground equipment has been recently reopened for use. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

At-Large Councilor Darek Grant said his own kids, ages 7 and 10, have been noticeably impacted by the pandemic and being largely isolated at their home since students were sent home.

“I have a feeling this will be one of the most anticipated things we do here in this city,” Grant said of the proposed program, which would be offered free to residents. “And probably be the most impactful thing we do, all things considered.”

Rollins said it would be similar to a program the city had at its playgrounds years ago, in which high school and college-aged workers would assist city staff to supervise youth activities in the city’s neighborhood playground parks.

At-Large Councilor Raegan LaRochelle said “back in the day” she was one of the playground workers and it was a great job. She is excited it’s coming back.

What would be new, amidst the current pandemic, would be the requirement such activities follow social distancing guidelines to prevent any spread of the coronavirus.

At-Large Councilor Marci Alexander, who served on an ad hoc committee that worked on the proposal, said it would go beyond making sure the young participants remain safe and socially distanced while there. Lessons for them about the pandemic and what kids can do to try to remain safe are also planned. She said that could help prepare them to potentially return to classrooms if and when schools reopen in the fall.

“You have to remember, when (the schools) shut down, these kids were whisked out of school before they had a chance to have what was going on explained, in a way they’d understand,” she said. “So they could be taught about COVID, taught about washing their hands and containing the virus. We can have a little curriculum for them. I’m sure they’re all very anxious, their world changed from a very social world to a not very social world. As many kids as we can get into this program, the better.”

She said if the pandemic returns and the in-person program needs to be scaled back, the workers could come up with activities that could be sent with children to be done at their homes.

The so-called Back to the Future Playground Program could run for up to seven weeks. Leif Dahlin, community services director, said it would cost about $58,000. About $52,000 would come from funding that would normally have been used to operate the city’s pools, which aren’t going to open this summer due to the coronavirus. Dahlin said the rest of the money could come from other accounts with funds that are expected to not be used due to pandemic-related changes, and one week’s worth of wages could come from next year’s proposed budget.

Rollins said the concept of the city offering new programming to try to replace some of what local youths won’t be able to do this summer sprung from a conversation he had with William Burney, former mayor and school board chairman. Burney, Rollins said, “challenged us with, ‘What are you going to do for the kids?'”

Committee members who worked on the proposal, Rollins said, included 2020 Cony graduates Katherine Boston, an accomplished dancer, and Simon McCormick, a talented athlete.

Alexander said activities would have to comply with Center for Disease Control guidelines and could include lessons in sports, dance and theater.

Ward 4  Councilor Eric Lind said the program could also provide an opportunity for officials to see children who could be experiencing violence at the hands of family members. Child abuse experts have said reports of child abuse dropped during the pandemic, in part because school staff are often the ones who see and report signs to authorities. With schools closed, some of those signs may go unnoticed and unreported.

“We’ve lost sight of a lot of kids who may be victims of family violence,” Lind said. “This is great, it’ll get some eyes on some kids who probably haven’t had someone watching out for them.”

Participants would need to register for the program through the city’s recreation department.

City councilors are scheduled to vote on the proposal to create the new program, using primarily summer pool funds, at their 7 p.m. meeting Thursday at the Augusta Civic Center.

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