By Rachel Dissell and Brie Zelter
For some parents of school-age children, the decision of most area school districts to start the school year with remote and virtual learning came as a relief, as uncertainty about increasing cases of COVID-19 and possible outbreaks loom.
But for many Cleveland-area parents, the news sparked worry.
Parents who can relate to the following scenarios now balance concerns over the coronavirus and fear that their children are falling behind in school or are unsafe at home:
- Parents who cannot work from home.
- Those who do not have a reliable internet connection.
- Those who do not have the necessary virtual-learning technology.
- Those who live in neighborhoods with rising levels of gun violence.
Community after-school programs and some area churches are stepping in with plans to offer safe, digitally equipped, socially distanced places for students during school hours beginning in September. The hope is that they can help parents keep working and students keep up with studies this school year.
Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio accelerated plans to expand its programs as soon as Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon announced in July that students would learn remotely for the first nine weeks of the school year, a decision followed by many other local districts.
One of many concerns was the well-known “digital divide” in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, said Jeff Scott, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio. More than 40% of Cleveland households don’t have regular access to broadband, according to a digital inclusion study and U.S. census data from 2018.
The clubs normally serve about 2,000 youths, ages 6 to 18, daily at 39 centers in Cleveland, Akron, and Lorain and Erie counties. The arts and recreational activities and tutoring and career-readiness programs traditionally are provided after school.
The idea that students, through no fault of their own, might lose academic ground, “It just makes your stomach churn,” Scott said. “That’s why we are so committed to figuring out a model that allows us to operate during the [school] day.”
In April, a CMSD survey of parents led to estimates that as many as two-thirds of families did not have electronic devices needed for learning at home. The district scrambled in the spring to distribute more than 10,000 computers and WiFi hotspots to students. Local foundations and businesses have contributed millions of dollars and donated hotspots for the fall, though it is unclear how many students still lack adequate computers and high-speed internet access needed for remote learning. CMSD schools last week were conducting parent surveys about technology needs.
A challenge for churches
Local pastors will also offer support to working parents and their children by opening up as many as 20 churches to school-age children in September.
The Cleveland Clergy Coalition hopes to offer safe places with digital connections and adult supervision during the nine weeks or longer of remote learning, said the Rev. Aaron Phillips, who leads the coalition. Some of the congregations provided after-school programming and tutoring before the pandemic, Phillips said, but the demand is expected to be greater this fall, especially for parents who must work.
The churches that will open to students, mostly on Cleveland’s East Side and in the inner-ring suburbs, face a litany of logistical issues to get their spaces ready and to make sure proper health protocols are in place for children who would come during the daytime hours to learn.
The project, Phillips said, won’t be easy. “It’s a huge undertaking and we don’t know where the funding resources are going to be to help us with any of this.”
The challenges of opening to students are also compounded by the higher rate of COVID-19 infections in Cleveland’s Black community, Phillips said. As of July 15, Black Clevelanders made up 73% of the hospitalizations for COVID-19 and 57% of the deaths attributed to complications from the disease, though they make up about half of the city’s population.
Other organizations, such as YWCA of Greater Cleveland, charter schools and youth development programs, are also looking at operating small learning centers for school-age children.
A test run
The Boys & Girls Clubs estimates it might be able to serve 500 to 700 students at its standalone centers, three of which are in Cleveland, where 37,000 kids attend district schools and more attend charter and parochial schools.
Churches are still gauging demand and figuring out how many students each building can accommodate.
With a small number of students using the facilities each day, Boys & Girls Clubs believes it can operate safely. The organization already had a test run of sorts, Scott said. In June, it reopened nine of its Northeast Ohio locations to provide meals and safe gathering places to kids dealing with stress from the pandemic, social and racial unrest, and community violence, Scott said.
The first time a club learned of an exposure to the virus, which has happened a handful of times, it shut down for several days to clean. Leaders personally made sure front-line staff were comfortable with reopening, Scott said.
The organization activates a task force within the hour of learning of a positive coronavirus case involving a club member. It uses a process similar to the one when a club member or family experiences community violence: Learn what happened, find out how staff and families are feeling, make a plan to respond to concerns and plan for next steps, he said.
The effort includes balancing both virus-related health issues and the other safety issues some kids face daily. In July, the week the decision was made for Cleveland schools to open remotely, the city had recorded 83 official coronavirus deaths, five more than the 78 reported homicide deaths.
“It really is about the nuances of all these situations,” Scott said. “And you’re in a tactical battle on a day-to-day basis and make the best decision that you can based on the information that you have. But the inputs are many. The inputs are about the virus, the inputs [are] about our kids’ safety and all of the social unrest and the racial equity issues that we’re dealing with,” he said.
Violent crime in Cleveland neighborhoods is up. Homicides have increased about 20% from last year and shootings have jumped nearly 40%, according to Cleveland police crime statistics.
Four kids involved with Boys & Girls Clubs in Cleveland have been killed or had a family member killed by gun violence since the beginning of May, Scott said. Pre-pandemic, a single such incident might have happened once every couple of months, he said.
Attendance at the King Kennedy club on the East Side was down recently following several shootings, Scott said. Children were afraid to walk the 200 yards to the club from the King Kennedy Estates, where many of the members live.
Efforts similar to those in Cleveland are emerging across the country, particularly in urban areas, where concerns about COVID-19 have to be balanced with the realities of keeping children fed and safe from violence and other risks where they live.
Higher-income families are creating “learning pods” by hiring educators to help with instruction for small groups of children while schools are closed or operating virtually, said Jen Rinehart, vice president for research and policy at the Afterschool Alliance, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C.
Replicating that pod-style learning among local organizations or programs that serve low-income families can help prevent existing inequities from being exacerbated, she said. The alliance created a blueprint for programs looking to partner with school districts.
But those endeavors will need public policy support and funding so that all young people have access to a safe, supervised place that offers technology support, access to food and additional enrichment, she said.
One obstacle is that current federal funding, through child care and education grants that support before- and after- school programs, only allows money to be spent when school is not in session. The Afterschool Alliance and others have asked the U.S. Department of Education to relax those rules so money can be used to serve children who are learning virtually during the school day, Rinehart said.
Planning for school
Over the next few weeks, staff from the Boys & Girls Clubs will prepare each site that will open to students, working with school districts from Cleveland to Sandusky, Scott said.
Staff members are trying to answer a long list of questions, including:
- How many kids they can safely serve?
- Should gyms be used to spread kids out?
- What hours should they be open?
- What infrastructure — from desks to power cords, fiber-optic cables and hotspots — are needed?
- How long will it take to ramp up and how much it will cost?
Ideally, the clubs will create distance-learning pods where children can set up to do school work and the center’s youth development staff can monitor and help them with their work.
Depending on the club, the plan is to serve ages 6 to 18 and group them by age, like the old schoolhouse model, Scott said.
The centers hope to also continue to offer after-school programs by closing to clean for a few hours each day and then reopening, Scott said.
The churches that will open to students, mostly on Cleveland’s East Side and in the inner-ring suburbs, also face a litany of logistical issues to get their spaces ready and to make sure proper health protocols are in place for children who would come during the daytime hours to learn.
“It’s a matter of safety as well as providing the tutoring and educational piece that we know our students are going to need during this virtual period as well,” he said.
The Boys & Girls Clubs and the clergy coalition both said they were working closely with CMSD to reach families that might need help the most. They are also learning how to use the district’s new online education software, and discussing whether district transportation might be available for some students.
Cleveland Metropolitian School District officials did not respond to questions sent last week about the community efforts to support students’ learning.
Bullet points for possible info to pull out in a box:
More than 40% of Cleveland households don’t have regular access to broadband, according to a digital inclusion study and U.S. census data from 2018.
Some 37,000 children attend Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools, not including charter and parochial schools.
The district distributed more than 10,000 computers and WiFi hotspots to students this spring. Local foundations and businesses have contributed millions of dollars and donated hotspots for the fall, but it is unclear how many students still lack adequate computers and high-speed internet access needed for remote learning.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio, which has 39 centers in Cleveland, Akron, and Lorain and Erie counties, estimates it might be able to serve 500 to 700 students at its standalone centers, three of which are in Cleveland.
As many as 20 local churches plan to open to school-age children in September to support working parents, though funding is an issue.
Other organizations are considering small learning centers for school-age children, including YWCA of Greater Cleveland, local charter schools and youth development programs.
Contact info for parents seeking help:
Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio: (216) 883-2106
The Cleveland Clergy Coalition: firstname.lastname@example.org.