Right after Gov. Phil Murphy announced this month that schools can start the academic year offering online classes, districts across the state rolled back their hybrid instruction models — and parents started to panic.
What will they do with their kids during the day if they have to go to work? If they’re working from home, how will they balance their workload while helping their children with instruction?
That’s when some organizations, their own routines impacted by restrictions during the pandemic, began offering a solution — drop your child off to the local organization, dance studio or gymnastics academy where they can experience the structure of school, complete with physical activities.
As a parent, Ashley Tabano, owner of Encore! Performing Arts Center in Egg Harbor Township, felt firsthand the anxiety over what she will do with her kids, ages 10, 7 and 2, during school hours.
“I want them to go somewhere, be able to do their work and then have a little bit of interaction, a little bit of physical activity,” she said. “I knew that it was something that I would really appreciate, and as I started to talk to some of the other parents they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great idea.’”
Tabano is also the dance teacher at Cedar Creek High School and has to report to the school to virtually teach her students.
To help parents in similar situations, Tabano’s Encore! will offer a “Eduternative” program where parents can drop off their child, with their laptop, headphones, snacks and lunch for the day and Encore will oversee school instruction and help with any academic questions.
Similar programs are also being offered at Bright Stars Gymnastics in Egg Harbor Township and at the Cumberland-Cape-Atlantic YMCA in Vineland.
“We really listened to our community, especially parents that were working either from home or in office jobs,” said Theresa Booth, senior director of child development at the YMCA. “For some parents, they have a job, they have a career. How do you do that and be a parent and balance being a teacher? That’s a lot of stress, so we thought how could we help.”
The YMCA is offering the program at its Vineland location and, through a partnership, with elementary schools in Port Norris and Somers Point. Bright Stars, Encore and the YMCA are all taking similar approaches when it comes to virtual learning and the health and safety of its students and staff.
Temperature checks will be taken when students arrive, and a health questionnaire will be given. Students and staff must wear a mask at all times and work tables will be 6 feet apart.
Students will be broken up by age, in different groups in different rooms and staff will be on site to help with any schoolwork-related questions. Staff range from substitute teachers to former teachers to college students willing to help.
“One of our employees, who’s also a mom, is right on top of the kids,” said Bonnie Petitt, owner of Bright Stars. “She’s very efficient, and she’ll be facilitating the structure in the program and making sure they’re getting their work done and answering any questions.
“She’ll redirect them if they’re getting off track or distracted,” she added. “The parents will be responsible for making sure the kids are actually on track with what the school is asking of them, but we will make sure that the time they spend here with schoolwork is productive.”
Each program will have a schedule in place that includes virtual learning time, lunch and physical and extracurricular activities.
“We feel as though we can offer the full package that the children need to focus on their academics. We’ll make sure they get a lot of physical activity, a lot of team building and a lot of socialization,” Petitt said.
The YMCA is also doing social emotional learning, where frequent check-ins to students will occur from staff who received trauma training who can look for signs, Booth said.
“I can’t imagine being a small child dealing with all this doom and gloom,” she said. “Wearing a mask and not going to school, ‘I can’t go to school and I can’t hug my friends.’”
Most schools in the area that are starting the academic year all virtual plan to return to a hybrid model in October or November, but Petitt may offer the program all year.
“We’ve had a lot of interest for the entire school year,” she said. “We are planning to keep moving forward with it. A lot of what we’re hearing is that parents are still not clear when their children are going to be scheduled to go to school, if at all.”
Encore and the YMCA plan to do the same, although Tabano hopes kids will eventually return to school.
“As a teacher I want to teach my kids in person,” she said. “Obviously I understand (the pandemic), but it’s just disheartening to even think of the detriment that’s going to happen to these kids by not having in-person instruction.
“I’m really trying to help,” she added about the program. “It’s a tough time and we all need to help each other.”