NEW LONDON — Impromptu classrooms are springing up around town as measures to control the COVID pandemic force district schools to close or reduce in-person learning.
Non-profit educational organizations like Drop-In Learning, New England Science and Sailing and the B.P. Learned Mission have partnered with the City of New London and other churches and nonprofits to offer spaces where elementary and middle school students can study on days they are not physically in school.
The organizations have been running these centers — there are currently five — since September, when the New London School District opened in a hybrid model. And new locations continue to open — not because the existing centers are filled to capacity — but because differing circumstances have created a diversity of needs.
Last month, the Garde Arts Center opened its theater and storefront properties to provide a learning center specifically for middle schoolers. Sharon Bousquet, Program Coordinator at the New London Recreation Department, which has been working with the nonprofits, said that since middle schoolers spend most of their remote days online and in a completely different platform than the elementary schoolers, it’s good for them to have their own space.
Garde Arts Executive Director Steve Sigel said that he believes the space is actually safer than a regular classroom because of the theater’s sophisticated air ventilation system.
“We provide a very, very safe space for young people,” he said.
The Drop-In Learning Center, a New London-based nonprofit that provides after-school programming and childcare, oversees the program at the Garde and at St. James Episcopal Church. As with all the centers, Drop-In seperates the kids into cohorts to prevent children who go to school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays from mixing with those who go in on Thursdays and Fridays.
Reona Dyess, executive director of Drop-In, said she divides her young people into two cohorts: one for children attending school Monday through Wednesday, and one for children who attend Wednesday through Friday. In each group, the center allows a maximum of 14 elementary students and 14 middle schoolers.
Dyess said that she’s been steadily receiving applications for the program since September, but that the group hasn’t reached its maximum numbers yet.
At an Ocean Beach site run by the New London Recreation Department, Bousquet said they generally hosted between 20 and 30 children per day, except on Wednesdays, when they average about 45. The site can accommodate 30 children on every day except Wednesday, when they can host 60.
Bousquet said the demand has been up and down — many new families have expressed interest, but others have pulled their children out of the program out of concern about the rise in COVID cases.
New London Recreation also just opened a new site at Miracle Temple for students who need supervision only on Wednesdays, when all students learn remotely. The International Family Worship Center is also a potential site; although it has yet to be approved by the City Council, Bousquet called it a “definite possibility.”
“We’re very happy to be able to support the kids. It’s definitely a very stressful time for everyone,” said Bousquet.
More than Wi-Fi
Since the beginning of the year, the New London School District has switched between hybrid and remote learning models.
In October and November, various schools (and, for a week in mid-November, the entire district) closed to in-person learning after detecting COVID cases in the school community. Even when the schools were operating in the hybrid model, 40 percent of students opted for completely remote learning.
Mirna Martinez, chair of the Education Committee for New London’s Long Term Recovery Committee, said the original impetus to provide spaces for the children was that many young people didn’t have access to wifi – she remembers parents driving to parking lots so that their kids could get their schoolwork done.
And the centers provide more than a steady internet connection — they offer food, academic support, socialization and sometimes even enrichment activities.
At the Drop-In sites, young people are able to come in at 8 a.m. and stay as late as 5 p.m. Adults are available to help them with their schoolwork, and the New London School District provides them with hot breakfast and lunch. They have also partnered with organizations like Expressions and Connecticut Storytelling to engage the children in hands-on activities.
Dyess said that the program was critical for parents, many of whom are essential workers.
“My parents are very grateful,” she said.
New England Science and Sailing, which has locations in Stonington and New London, has also tried to provide activities for the kids that go beyond just schoolwork – things like geocaching, sailing, seal watching and excursions to tide pools.
“Our main strength is to be out in the environment,” said Program Director Megan Strand.
Strand said the group hosted their largest numbers of children in September, and that they had seen a steady decrease since then. However, she said they are considering adding a five-day-a-week option in January, which about half of their parents had expressed interest in.
New London Public Schools went to distance learning the week after Thanksgiving, but plan to re-open in the hybrid model next week. The current plan is to remain in the hybrid model until Christmas, and to return with a week of fully remote learning the week of January 4th.
Fees and financial help
The New London Recreation Department used $180,000 of the $357,000 that New London received in the second round of CARES Act funding to staff and support the learning centers.
The money has been spent on staffing at the Ocean Beach site, leasing the Garde Arts Center, and helping New England Science and Sailing increase its capacity for taking in students. Some of the funding was also spent on providing a direct wi-fi hookup at the Ocean Beach and Miracle Temple sites.
New England Science and Sailing and the Drop-In Learning Center also receive funding from grants and private donations.
All of the sites charge fees to the parents which help sustain the programs. Tom Bombria, the community development coordinator for the City of New London, said the fees are important given that no one knows how long the learning pods will be necessary.
Fees range from $20 to $50 per day. There are some scholarships available, and Dyess said that some of the families at Drop-In qualify for help through Care 4 Kids, a nonprofit that assists families in paying for childcare.
But Martinez said the fees can add up for parents who don’t make a lot of money, or who have multiple children. 81 percent of New London students currently qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“The opportunity gap is widening so much more,” said Martinez, adding that parents who have the money can send their kids to private “pods,” while those who don’t are left without that option.
Martinez also added that the problems that these centers are addressing in the short-term aren’t going to disappear after the pandemic is over.
Martinez said she’s looking into creating a permanent center for students to come to after school, where they can get mental health services, homework help and bi-lingual services. She said she’s working with the town’s finance director to request funds from FEMA and other agencies to be able to rent a building.
In the meantime, the recreation department is working on providing the children with transportation to the various sites, starting with the Garde.
Dyess said that she’d received an increase in calls recently after fall report cards came out and parents realized that their children needed more support.
“We don’t want our kids to suffer,” said Dyess. “We want our kids to get what they need.”
She said she’s very grateful for their partnership with the Garde.
“This is what it’s about,” she said. “Community helping each other.”
Photo credit: Reona Dryss, Drop-In Learning