For 15 years, kids came to Amerikick, a martial arts center on a busy corner of Brooklyn's Park Slope, to take karate lessons and learn how to kick, hoe, and bow in the center's spacious studio upstairs.
But in 2020 they come for something else: school.
With New York schools operating on a hybrid model that only gets kids into the classroom two or three days a week, Amerikick heard from working parents – especially those who were teachers themselves – that they needed a safe place to keep their Send children during their remote control days. Over the summer, staff decided to convert the space into a distance learning center where students could work on their online courses in a supervised environment.
Turning a karate studio into a space for a remote school during a pandemic required some adjustments. "We boxed the mat with red tape," Ada Vargas, Amerikicks program director, told Vox. The studio also installed hand sanitizer stations everywhere, as well as some warmer details such as: B. Bulletin boards for each student. "They decorate it and make it themselves to make them feel a little lighter," said Vargas.
And of course every student gets their own Amerikick mask.
America's linchpin for distance learning may sound unusual, but it's not unique. Across the country, businesses and non-profit organizations, from dance studios to summer camps, are becoming so-called “supportive learning centers” that offer supervision, WiFi and sometimes extracurricular enrichment to children whose schools are partially or fully isolated due to Covid-19. These centers can provide a much-needed lifeline to parents when many – especially mothers – are forced to choose between keeping their jobs and looking after their children. In the meantime, offering distance learning services could help some small businesses stay afloat during uncertain times.
But companies like Amerikick cannot solve America's childcare and education crisis on their own. For one thing, unlike schools, these centers are often completely unregulated, which means that the quality of support children receive can vary widely. Elliot Haspel, childcare policy expert and author of Crawling Behind: America's Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, said Vox. And while nationwide data on the number of new learning centers is sparse, it is certainly not enough to meet the huge needs of the millions of American children who are not yet in full-time school. Also, their fees, which range from free for some nonprofits to thousands of dollars per session for some camps, are not affordable for every family.
For those who have access to them, the centers may offer something that many families have struggled to find during this time of isolation: a community that supports them and their children.
"We want our kids to look back at that time and not think, 'That was the worst semester for 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 had to go into this very special room that made it as fun as possible. "
For some families who can't afford pods, learning centers fill in the gaps
That fall, thousands of schools across the country started the school year either completely remotely or on a hybrid schedule with children in school buildings only part of the day or week. Overall, around 38 percent of the districts – including most of the largest in the country – were either remote or hybrid. That left millions of parents in the same untenable position they were in the spring of taking care of their children and overseeing virtual learning while they somehow get their work done.
Some parents were able to create “pods” to share childcare and school duties. Wealthy families even hired teachers to teach their children at home, at a cost of up to $ 100,000 a year. But most people can't afford that price – and even less formal, parent-run pods are out of reach for many families who don't know about others in their area or whose work schedules don't allow them to engage in child care.
Some cities have responded by opening their own learning centers, with low-income families often being given priority. However, there are typically not enough city-run locations to help all children doing distance or hybrid learning. For example, New York City announced this summer that 100,000 students, less than 10 percent of the city's school-age population, would receive free care.
And now, more and more companies and nonprofits are filling the void, opening up their storefronts to offer socially detached spaces where children can enroll in their online courses with adult supervision and help. Such supportive learning centers have "become a kind of home industry," said Haspel.
This includes a dance studio in Islip, New York; Overnight camps in New Hampshire and Wisconsin; and even private schools in California that have reopened as camps to be classified as essential businesses. Meanwhile, Amerikick, a franchise company with offices across the country, offers distance learning in its studios in New Jersey as well as Brooklyn.
"We're trying to help the community and parents," said Vargas.
At Amerikick, children ages 5 to 12 can attend distance learning from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on days away from school. If the parents need them, they have longer hours at their disposal. Students each attend online classes at their own school, but Amerikick hired a teacher to make sure they sign up and get their assignments done at the right time. During the breaks, the employees help the children to move by playing socially distant games like Simon Says – or doing martial arts.
"Our style, we do acrobatics," said Vargas. "There's a lot of kicking and hitting and rolling and funny things like that."
Amerikick's distance learning program is $ 65 per day or lower if parents pay monthly. However, some nonprofits offer similar services to those in need for free.
To celebrate! For example, RVA was founded in 2013 to host birthday parties for low-income children in Richmond, Virginia. But when the pandemic hit and schools closed, Warren said, "We heard from families who were just in need of help." "We just chose a pivot point because we had space and we knew our kids needed it more than anything."
Celebrate opened its distance learning space on September 4th and today has 12 students, all of whom attend for free. The nonprofit is part of a coalition of groups in the region that are trying to care for and support children whose parents cannot afford to pay for them. For Celebrate, providing distance learning was "the most loving and joyful thing to do to support the children and their families," Warren said.
Offering distance learning could also help small businesses
While learning centers occupy an important niche for families, they could also help some small businesses turn on lights at a time when many previous offerings – such as indoor dance classes – are not possible.
Distance learning is not a business decision for Amerikick, which also offers online and outdoor karate classes, Vargas said. However, with many school buildings closed, the time is right for youth-focused companies to make their services available to students, whether they operate a learning center or offer remotely enrichment courses, said Ty Lewis, CEO of the nonprofit educational center for learning Vox.
"This is the best time to take advantage of your gifts and offer everything you offer," said Lewis. "If you're a dance instructor, karate teacher, robotics, or coder this is an amazing time to do it."
For businesses and other organizations considering opening learning centers, safety is the most important consideration. "Just follow the science," advises Richard "Woody" Woodstein, owner and director of Camp Robin Hood in Freedom, New Hampshire, which hosted a five-week long distance student meeting this fall. "Whatever you think you have to do, do more to protect everyone," he told Vox. "If you can do that, children can be children."
However, after safety, the biggest question about assistive learning centers is quality. While large organizations like the YMCA have trained staff and have long been providing childcare and care, smaller companies and groups may be less prepared for the challenges, Haspel said. "Can you help a first grader who is having a bad day and has a tantrum?" he asked. "Can you help a student who is really having trouble reading or math? It's not that clear."
Parents looking to enroll their children in learning centers should be prepared to answer questions, experts say. First, they should ask about pandemic precautions – questions like how many children are enrolled and whether social distancing is being observed, Lewis said. In addition, they should consider what is offered not only under supervision: "Can you give my child lessons during the day? What activities will you offer? Will you take repeated breaks so that they can step away from the screen?"
And while some families may find centers ticking all their boxes, they are far from having a complete solution to the lack of childcare during the pandemic. For this "we need a lot more money that flows into the system," said Haspel. Experts agree that the childcare industry needs at least $ 50 billion to stabilize through the pandemic and into the future. So far, the regulations governing the provision of the money in the Republican-controlled Senate have stalled.
Still, some individual centers are showing success, especially at a time when many students across the country are struggling with distance learning. Absenteeism was a major concern during the pandemic, with about two in five students in Richmond being chronically absent from school, Warren said. But on Celebrate, "we didn't see a child absent without excuse," she said.
And even in the short time the center was open, the students made great academic strides. The youngest in kindergarten came to Celebrate without knowing many of her letters. But "she can now identify and match uppercase and lowercase letters, she can spell words, she knows eye words, she can put sentences together, she can add," said Warren.
"We have just seen incredible growth in our children," she added, "and we are just really proud of everything they have achieved."
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