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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

West Side Groups Step Up To Give Essential Workers’ Kids A Safe Space To Take Virtual Classes

While e-learning prevents coronavirus from spreading in classrooms, it creates new problems for parents who work outside of the home, a Breakthrough Urban Ministries director said.

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GARFIELD PARK — As CPS classes start virtually this week, West Side essential workers who can’t be home with their kids to supervise e-learning are getting some help from neighborhood groups.

Programs like Young Men’s Educational Network in North Lawndale and Breakthrough Urban Ministries and Marillac St. Vincent Family Services in Garfield Park are giving students a safe space to e-learn under the supervision of adults. YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs are retooling as virtual learning havens, too.

While e-learning prevents coronavirus from spreading in classrooms, it creates new problems for parents who work outside of the home, said Marcie Curry, a senior director for Breakthrough Urban Ministry’s youth programs.

“Are they going to get a good education? Are they going to be monitored? Are they going to be able to have lunch? These are the things families in our community are thinking about.”

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Students at Breakthrough are given a distanced workplace to do online classes.

Breakthrough Urban Ministries put together an e-learning support program after determining many parents they serve are essential workers who can’t stay home and need someone to help keep their kids on schedule and engaged in their coursework.

The program provides child care for younger students who can’t be left at home. For older students, adults provide the support they would normally get in school. And for diverse learners, like those with ADHD or autism, the program offers face-to-face interaction that is essential for learning, Curry said.

The program serves about 60 students from kindergarten to eighth grade daily. They work in pods of up to 10, and they’re given face masks and enough space to social distance. Students who don’t have their own laptops or tablets are given a Chromebook provided by Breakthrough.

“In this community, we have coronavirus. We have violence. We have limited technology in homes. All of those are threats to students having a good online education. The parents have to work. They’re not afforded the ability to hire a private tutor,” Curry said.

While Breakthrough’s program follows social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines, it also promotes collaboration between students since the lack of social and emotional connection is one of the biggest gaps in e-learning that stops some students from achieving.

“It’s important for kids to be able to socialize and not be stuck, isolated. Being isolated in education, it’s just not how we learn. We learn by interacting with people,” Curry said.

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Sherry Orr, who works outside of the home, enrolled her high-school-aged grandson in a similar program run by the Young Men’s Educational Network in North Lawndale. For Orr, school isn’t just about teaching her grandson the curriculum. It’s also about having a safe environment where he could develop alongside other young people.

“I was excited for my grandson to have this experience going to high school. That feeling of, ‘I’m growing up now,'” she said.

The Young Men’s Educational Network program was developed to help students who struggled to learn without the school routine and face-to-face connection, said Marcus Thorne, the group’s executive director of operations.

“They did not want to do e-learning. They want to be in school with their peers. They want to be able to engage their teachers face to face,” Thorne said.

Many families in the area don’t have enough rooms in the house for each student to have their own workspace, Thorne said, and spotty WiFi can make it hard to access virtual classes. Some students have to help take care of younger siblings while parents are at work, making it difficult to keep up with classes. Even meals become a burden for working parents with kids doing home learning, Thorne said.

The Young Men’s Educational Network Academy gives students two meals a day and provides electronic devices and mentorship so young people can concentrate on school, Thorne said.

Nearly all seats in the program were quickly filled, which Thorne said shows how essential this kind of support is.

Other youth groups have similar models to help remote learners. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago has turned seven centers into Remote Learning Centers to supervise kids while they do virtual classes. Eight YMCAs in Chicago are offering in-person support for remote classes. The YMCA program costs $33-$52 per day, though financial assistance is available.

The remote learning support program at Marillac St. Vincent Family Services is aimed at leveling the playing field for working families.

Marillac St. Vincent Family Services has capacity for 150 students in its remote support program. Like the other youth organizations, it doesn’t have enough space to help every family that needs it, said Chief Operating Officer Maureen Hallagan.

But these resources are crucial to keep students from slipping through the cracks in the transition to online classrooms, Hallagan said.

“There’s some families that have to do e-learning, but they have the resources to be able to guide their child along,” Hallagan said. “There’s so many opportunities in different communities for kids to keep going and learning, and we want to make sure our kids can have the same opportunity.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.