Once the Durham Board of Education decided in July to move school online, members began planning learning centers – supervised spaces where students unable to stay at home could attend virtual classes.
“We knew there would be children whose parents are essential workers, or who didn’t have anyone at home,” board member Natalie Beyer said. “We’ve been reading about what other progressive cities have been doing to take care of children, so we pushed hard for it.”
Currently, Durham Public Schools funds four learning center sites: at Eno Valley and WG Pearson Magnet elementary schools for students in grades pre-K through 5, and at Carrington and Shepard middle schools for students in grades 6 through 12.
Local non-profits have set up similar centers in Durham too. Some residents have organized informal sites – a case of parents helping parents in the face of these unpredictable times. As of this week, DPS centers serve 300 students.
Like most things throughout this pandemic, launching these spaces required creativity and caution. By combining state guidelines and listening to their students, public school administrators created strategies to guard against COVID infection and help children learn.
Days at the centers do and do not look like school days. Students arrive at around the same time, about 9 a.m. Once inside they remain in a classroom pod of 10 students. District staff supervise them as they attend online school through each student’s respective Google classroom or zoom link. When the day ends, parents or other caretakers pick them up.
Early on, educators faced challenges, including keeping track of students’ different, and sometimes conflicting schedules, said Tracy Super-Edwards, coordinator of extended learning for DPS.
“The students are from many schools, all in one classroom, you know. Even though you have 10 students, they could be from 10 different schools and different grade levels, and the educators have to juggle them all,” said Super-Edwards, who oversees the DPS centers.
Initially, the DPS sites drew few students, possibly due to family’s uncertainty that the sites could keep kids safe from COVID-19, according to Super-Edwards. But now, since neither staff nor students have been diagnosed with COVID, interest has grown and the centers are nearly full.
“I think now that we’ve been doing it now for a couple of months, there’s more validity behind it,” Super-Edwards said. “Parents see it’s working, see they’re kids love it, see that they’re safe, and so now we have a lot more students trying to get in.”
Kate’s Korner hosts a DPS Foundation HOPE Learning Center, a program for public school students whose families struggle financially, live in foster care, or have parents who are essential workers. The site has adopted multiple strategies to keep children and staff safe.
Like DPS, Kate’s Korner keeps students in small pods, requires masks, and screens kids by taking their temperature before they enter every day. They have cleaners do a full COVID spray-down cleaning weekly.
“We do a lot of hand washing, a lot of sanitizing, and managing keeping kids out of each-other’s space, which is difficult. Some people might say [the COVID spray] is a little extreme, but you know we’re keeping everyone safe,” said Kezia Goodwin, Kate’s Korner founder.
Kate’s Korner was set to open initially as drop-in child care center, but after COVID hit and derailed Goodwin’s plans, she jumped at the opportunity to help the DPS Foundation’s plans to help the community.
Through partnership with Durham county, the DPS Foundation, The YMCA, and Student U, a Durham education nonprofit, Kate’s Korner doesn’t charge students who enroll.
“With time, energy and effort that we were giving them, the students are getting there, and we’re helping them improve. We’re serving kids with some of the least opportunity” Goodwin said.
Durham Museum of Life and Science, through its Museum Clubhouse, also has opened an alternative to attending online school at home.
The program is an extension of a camp they produced over the summer, taking what they had learned and expanding it with educators and more enrichment programs, leading kids through exhibits and fun themes throughout the week, said Carly Apple, director of STEM learning at the museum and overseer of the Clubhouse.
This program charges tuition, with the cost varying depending on how many days a week students participate. Enrolling four days a week between Oct. 19 and Nov. 13 cost museum members $952 and non-members, $1,048, according to the program’s website.
“Some days, students are more fidgety than other days; some days they need more or less attention. We try to give them activities so they’re not just at their computers all day,” Apple said.
One of the most important aspects of these centers is the chance to socialize, Apple said.
“We have a way to give kids safe socialization, which is something that we value. A lot of parents are worried about isolation with their kids. This was a way that kids could safely, I mean as safely as possible, they could interact with other kids,” Apple said.
Apple said the kids can play games socially distanced, and take daily tours of museum exhibits, ways to keep active and social.
Every day, the staff is learning from the needs of their students and adapting their policies throughout the months. The general, yet surprising, consensus among these administrators, though, is that kids are good at wearing masks.
“They’re much more mature about it than a lot of adults I know,” Apple said. “They adapt so quickly, and sure we have to remind them sometimes about small stuff and make sure the masks fit, but they’re just really good about it.”
That said, sometimes they need a break. At the DPS learning centers, staff have marked squares on floors distant from others where students can pull down masks for a minute or two when they need a break.
An unintended benefit of the centers is that they are giving at least some in the school district confidence that is possible for children to safely attend school in a COVID-adapted world.
“Our staff and our kids are healthy, so I think the fact is that if you put the safety measures in place, and you follow them daily, you have a great chance of preventing spread,” Goodwin said.
“These kids who should be in school, need to go back to school,” she added.
9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca. firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: Ashley Polk, a teacher at Kate’s Korner, helps a student during an online class. Polk said assisting students with the technical side of remote learning is what takes up most of her time at work. Photo by Henry Haggart