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With schools closed for days, the scramble is on to keep kids occupied

By Colleen Wright, Times Staff Writer
Published: September 14, 2017
Seven-year-olds Daniella Terrone, Noah Maddux and Aiden Rodriguez play on the swings Wednesday in a park in the north Hillsborough community of Villa Rosa. Like other families across the area, they and their parents have been searching for ways to pass the time after Hurricane Irma forced schools to close last week. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times]

TAMPA — Sweaty from running with neighborhood pals, 7-year-old Aiden Rodriguez paused beneath the shaded shelter at the Villa Rosa community park before heading back for more.

Hurricane Irma had kept them indoors for days, but now Aiden and his friends could spread out. They had been at play for four hours, with three moms keeping an eye on their children and those of other parents.

"A couple of kids, we're watching for the neighbors because they had to work," said one mother, Olivia Hart.

RELATED: 10 ways you can entertain stir crazy kids after the hurricane

Though the area's slow return to normalcy is a giant relief, the delayed reopening of schools until Monday presents a range of issues for families with children across Tampa Bay. Some are able to take advantage of the extra days off with fun activities, while parents who rely on schools for extended day care and nutritional needs are having to scramble.

"We're worried about our kids and our families," said Michelle Davenport, a kindergarten teacher at Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater, which serves students three meals a day. "A lot of teachers worry because they know that school is a consistent place for our kids."

With power restored to some facilities, local governments are opening centers to accommodate parents. The City of Clearwater opened free "day out" camps, similar to summer camps, at North Greenwood Recreation Center and Countryside Recreation Center. And as of Thursday, the city of Tampa opened 20 parks and recreation facilities free of charge.

"Especially in a time of need like this, with still a lot of people without power, come enjoy the A/C and the pools," said John Allen, recreation manager for the city of Tampa. "It's an opportunity for the parents to drop them off like (they) would for a summer break camp, so parents can go to work."

The Glazer Children's Museum in Tampa opened its doors Wednesday so children from households still without power could get physical activity and reduce stress in the air conditioning.

Jennifer Stancil, president and CEO of the museum, said it's one way to bring normalcy back to families. By Wednesday afternoon, more than 600 children were playing at the museum.

"I know from reaching out to colleagues in Houston and Louisiana that in the recovery process for their communities, the children's museum has been a respite, a relief, a break for the community, the parents," Stancil said. "We're seeing weary, tired parents whose kids have been cooped up for a while."

Some workplaces have made arrangements for employees with children.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

The city of Clearwater opened The Long Center free of charge for children of city employees. Metro Wellness & Community Centers, a nonprofit group, created supervised spaces at their Tampa and St. Petersburg locations for children of employees to spend the day.

"Although we care for our clients and our community, it's important to care for our employees," said James Keane, director of LGBTQ programming and development for Metro Wellness. "In an effort to make things a little bit easier for our staff as needed, we've provided the opportunity to bring in their children."

It's a huge help for parents like Cassie Jordan, a behavioral health therapist who brought her 9-year-old daughter Rilee into work on Wednesday. Without the arrangement, Jordan would have had to advise clients dealing with depression and anxiety from home, via teleconferences.

"I'm fortunate I don't have to do that so I can bring my daughter with me," she said.

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.