Can remote learning centers help kids with school during Covid-19?

For 15 years, kids came to Amerikick, a martial arts center on a bustling corner of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, for karate lessons, learning how to kick, chop, and bow in the center’s spacious upstairs studio.

But in 2020, they come for something a little different: school.

With New York City schools operating on a hybrid model that brings kids into classrooms just two or three days a week, Amerikick was hearing from working parents — especially those who were teachers themselves — that they needed a safe place to send their kids during their remote days. So over the summer, staff decided to transform the space into a distance learning center, where students could come to work on their online classes in a supervised environment.

Turning a karate studio into a space for remote school during a pandemic required a few adjustments. “We outlined the mat with red tape in boxes” to make sure desks were 6 feet apart, Ada Vargas, Amerikick’s program director, told Vox. The studio also installed hand sanitizer stations throughout, as well as some warmer touches, like bulletin boards for each student. “They decorate it and make it their own, to kind of make them feel a little bit easier about things going on,” Vargas said.

And, naturally, each student gets their own Amerikick-branded mask.

While Amerikick’s pivot to distance learning may sound unusual, it’s not unique. Around the country, businesses and nonprofits from dance studios to summer camps are becoming what some call “supportive learning centers,” offering supervision, wifi, and sometimes extracurricular enrichment for kids whose schools are fully or partially remote due to Covid-19. These centers can offer a much-needed lifeline to parents at a time when many — especially moms — are being forced to choose between keeping their jobs and caring for their kids. Meanwhile, offering distance learning services could help some small businesses stay afloat in uncertain times.

But businesses like Amerikick can’t solve America’s child care and education crisis all on their own. For one thing, unlike schools, these centers are often entirely unregulated, which means the quality of support kids get may vary widely, Elliot Haspel, a child care policy expert and the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It, told Vox. And while nationwide data on the number of new learning centers is sparse, there certainly aren’t enough to fill the enormous need with millions of American kids not yet back to school full time. Nor are their fees — which range from free for some nonprofits to thousands of dollars per session for some camps — affordable for every family.

Still, for those who can access them, the centers may offer something many families have struggled to find during this time of isolation: a community to support them and their kids.

“We want our kids to look back on this time and not think, ‘That was the worst semester, doing virtual learning,’” Julia Warren, executive director of Celebrate! RVA, a nonprofit that operates a learning center in Virginia, told Vox, “but rather, ‘Wow, it was really hard, but I got to go this really special space that made it as fun as possible.’”

For some families who can’t afford pods, learning centers are filling the gaps

This fall, thousands of schools around the country began the school year either fully remote or on a hybrid schedule that had kids in school buildings only part of the day or week. Overall, about 38 percent of districts — including most of the nation’s largest — were either remote or hybrid. That left millions of parents in the same untenable position they occupied in the spring: expected to care for their kids and supervise virtual learning while also somehow doing their jobs.

Some parents have been able to form “pods” to share child care and homeschooling duties, with affluent families even hiring teachers to educate their kids at home at a cost of up to $100,000 per year. But most people can’t afford that price tag — and even less formal, parent-led pods are out of reach for many families who don’t know others in their area or whose work schedules don’t allow them to pitch in on child care.

Some cities have responded by opening their own learning hubs, often with priority given to low-income families. But there typically aren’t enough city-run sites to serve all kids who are doing remote or hybrid learning. New York City, for example, announced in summer that it would provide free child care for 100,000 students, less than 10 percent of the city’s school-age population.

And now, an increasing number of businesses and nonprofits are filling the gap, opening up their storefronts to offer socially distanced spaces where kids can log in to their online classes, with supervision and help from adults on staff. Such supportive learning centers have “sort of become a cottage industry” in recent months, Haspel said.

They include a dance studio in Islip, New York; sleepaway camps in New Hampshire and Wisconsin; and even private schools in California that have reopened as camps in order to be classified as essential businesses. Meanwhile, Amerikick, a franchise with locations around the country, is offering distance learning at its New Jersey studios as well as in Brooklyn.

“We’re trying to help the community and the parents out,” Vargas said.

At Amerikick, kids ages 5 to 12 can come in for distance learning from 8 am to 3 pm on days when they’re out of school buildings, with extended hours available if parents need them. Students each attend online classes at their own school, but Amerikick hired a teacher to make sure they log in at the right time and complete their assignments. And during breaks, staff help the kids get moving by playing socially distanced games like Simon Says — or by practicing martial arts.

“Our style, we do acrobatics,” Vargas said. “There’s a lot of kicking and punching and rolling and fun stuff like that.”

Amerikick’s distance learning program costs $65 per day, or a lower rate if parents pay by the month. Some nonprofits, however, are offering similar services for free to those in need.

Celebrate! RVA, for example, was established in 2013 to throw birthday parties for low-income kids in Richmond, Virginia. But when the pandemic hit and schools closed down, “We were hearing from families who were just desperate for help” with child care, Warren said. “We just decided to make a pivot because we had the space, and we knew that our kids needed it more than anything.”

Celebrate opened its space for distance learning on September 4, and today has 12 students, all attending free of charge. The nonprofit is part of a coalition of groups in the area that are trying to provide care and support to kids whose parents can’t afford to pay for it. For Celebrate, offering distance learning “was the most loving and joyful thing to do to support the kids and their families,” Warren said.

Offering distance learning could also help small businesses

While learning centers fill an important niche for families, they could also help some small businesses keep the lights on during a time when many former offerings — indoor dance classes, for example — aren’t possible.

For Amerikick, which also offers online and outdoor karate classes, distance learning wasn’t a business decision, Vargas said. But with many school buildings closed, the time is ripe for youth-oriented businesses to make their services available for students, whether it’s operating a learning center or offering enrichment classes remotely, Ty Lewis, CEO of the nonprofit Educationally Speaking Center for Learning, told Vox.

“This is the best time to tap into your gifts and offer whatever you’re offering,” Lewis said. “If you’re a dance teacher, a karate teacher, robotics, coding, this is an amazing time to do it.”

For businesses and other organizations considering opening learning centers, many say the most important consideration is safety. “Just follow the science,” advises Richard “Woody” Woodstein, owner and director of Camp Robin Hood in Freedom, New Hampshire, which operated a five-week session this fall for students doing distance learning. “Whatever you think you need to do, do more to keep everybody safe,” he told Vox. “If you can do that, then kids can be kids.”

After safety, though, the biggest question about supportive learning centers is quality. While large organizations like the YMCA have trained staff and a long track record of offering child care and supervision, smaller businesses and groups may be less prepared for the challenges, Haspel said. “Are they able to help a first grader who’s having a bad day and throwing a tantrum?” he asked. “Are they able to help a student who’s really struggling with reading or with math? That’s not as clear.”

Parents looking to enroll their kids in learning centers should come prepared with questions, experts say. First, they should ask about pandemic precautions — questions like how many children are enrolled and whether social distancing is observed, Lewis said. Beyond that, they should consider asking what’s offered beyond just supervision: “Can you assist my child with instruction during the day? What are some activities that you’re going to offer them? Will they have repeated breaks so that they can move away from the screen?”

And while some families may find centers that check all their boxes, they’re far from a full solution to the shortage of child care during the pandemic. For that, “we need a whole lot more money flowing into the system,” Haspel said. Experts agree that the child care industry needs at least $50 billion to stabilize it through the pandemic and into the future, but so far, provisions to provide the money have stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Still, some individual centers are seeing successes, especially in a time when many students around the country are struggling with remote learning. Absenteeism has been a huge problem during the pandemic, with about two in five Richmond students chronically absent from school, Warren said. But at Celebrate, “we have not seen any child absent unexcused,” she said.

And even in the short time the center has been open, the students have made big strides academically. The youngest, in pre-kindergarten, came to Celebrate not knowing many of her letters. But “she can now identify and match uppercase and lowercase letters, she can spell words, she knows sight words, she can put sentences together, she can add,” Warren said.

“We’ve just seen incredible growth in our kids,” she added, “and we’re just really proud of all that they’ve been able to accomplish.”

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