MINT HILL, NC – With North Carolina stuck in Phase 2 and the days to the start of the new school year ticking down, there’s been one critical question weighing on parents’ minds: Will my kids be going back to school this fall?
With a little over a month until the start of the school year, Governor Cooper laid the groundwork for in-person instruction on July 14 with his approval of an updated “Plan B.” The hybrid learning plan allowed schools to open for in-person instruction with face coverings, reduced capacity, and social distancing. Ultimately, Cooper left the decision to pursue hybrid or remote-only instruction to individual districts.
On July 15, Mecklenburg County’s school board voted for “Plan B Plus Remote,” a plan that called for a two-week, in-person orientation in small groups with a transition to fully remote learning by week three. CMS also offered families the choice of an online-only virtual academy, which drew over 50,000 students – more than one-third of CMS’s student population
Only two weeks later, CMS unanimously approved a switch to “Plan C” – full remote learning – to continue for an undetermined amount of time. CMS cited safety concerns and staff shortages as reasons for the switch.
With students learning from home for the foreseeable future, many parents are scrambling to figure out how they’ll educate their children – or even provide basic supervision – while also working full time.
“There are a lot of families who are desperate for child coverage because, well, they’re working,” says Lauren Williams, whose seven-year-old daughter is enrolled at Sunny Days in Matthews. Normally open for before and after school care, Director Amy has elected to stay open full time for virtual learning. “It’s a huge blessing for us,” says Williams. “We are going to be there a few days a week primarily to give our daughter structure to her week and to be around other children because I think that is vitally important for socialization.”
Safe, supervised spaces set up for remote learning have been popping up with increasing frequency in the weeks since CMS announced its plans for the fall. Like Williams, many parents desperate to balance work, and childcare have been turning to places they already entrust with their children’s care and education, and local businesses have stepped up to the challenge.
“We were really concerned about families not having childcare they felt they could trust,” says Whitleigh Cook, owner of Mint Hill Dance Center. To meet that need, Cook developed the BOOST program, a safe, supervised space for students from elementary school through high school to complete remote learning activities. Cook’s staff will assist students in completing and submitting activities where they can, but they won’t be providing any academic instruction or tutoring.
“Essentially, we’re going to be monitors for them,” says Cook. “We’ll make sure they’re logging in and completing activities. During their downtime, we’re going to provide different physical activities like yoga and stretching, something to keep them fit and active.”
The program will run from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm daily, roughly the same hours children would be in school. Cook hopes to be able to offer early drop-off and late pick up but has to work around her regular schedule of dance classes, which begin at 4:00 pm daily. Cook plans to provide desks for each student, turning her dance studio into what she calls “a really spaced out classroom” that allows for kids to maintain six feet distance from one another. Students are asked to bring their own devices and supplies, but they will be able to access power outlets and internet service at Mint Hill Dance Center.
Like all small businesses that involve group instruction, Mint Hill Dance has seen a lot of changes in the past six months. Although they’re offering their regular schedule, they’ve limited all classes to ten or fewer, and none are currently filled to capacity. Dancers older than 11 and parents who come to the door (all classes are currently drop off only with the exception of the preschool class, for which one parent is allowed in the viewing area) must be masked. “We are also cleaning like crazy!” says Cook. “We’ve never gone through so many cleaning products.”
Lower enrollment, extra cleaning products – it puts a strain on any small business, and one could certainly understand the impetus to find new ways of bringing in income. Yet Cook insists that didn’t really play into her decision to offer the BOOST program. “We were really just thinking about the parents who were saying, ‘If I have to pay a tutor for five, six, seven hours a day, I’m going to go broke,’” says Cook. “We started to say, ‘How can we help? What can we do?’ I think we’re educators in different ways. We understand how to keep kids engaged, just in a different format. We started thinking we can translate that into monitoring and assisting with learning.”
Cook focused on making the program as affordable as possible for working parents; at the same time, Cook is cognizant of making sure her staff is compensated fairly for their time. At the end of the day, she’s not just creating an opportunity for parents to take advantage of a controlled learning environment; she’s also creating an opportunity for her staff to work in a time that’s economically challenging for many hourly workers.
Mint Hill Dance Center’s BOOST program is limited to 15 students. Cook has received many inquiries into the program and expects registration to pick up as parents nail down their schedules for the fall. The cost is $200 per week or $65 per day; they do offer a 10% sibling discount.
For Allen Johnston, owner of Achieve Martial Arts in downtown Matthews, the motivation to start a remote learning program was personal. “It was very much born out of the disaster of how school ended last year and my ability – or lack of ability – to navigate all that,” he says. Like Mint Hill Dance, Achieve Martial Arts won’t be teaching or tutoring; their focus will be facilitating online learning. Each child enrolled in Johnston’s program will be assigned an “enrichment counselor” who will help them access and navigate their remote learning activities and will communicate with the child’s parents on a daily basis.
“That’s the enrichment part,” says Johnston. “The other side of it is the socialization piece that I think these kids have lost. I think it’s really important to make sure they continue their social and emotional growth.” Johnston plans to incorporate martial arts for discipline and physical fitness as well as fun things like “Pizza Friday.”
Open from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm, Achieve Martial Arts’ enrichment program is geared toward the same working parents who, in the past, would have sent their children for after school care. Johnston sees it as appropriate for kindergarteners through sixth graders, but he’s welcomed some younger and older siblings as well. Johnston imagines that the bulk of the “remote learning” will be completed by 2:00 or 2:30 with enrichment activities and homework help in the afternoon.
Cognizant of the financial strain unexpected daytime care places on parents, Achieve Martial Arts’ program is priced at $150 per week or $599 per month. “I wanted to make sure it was affordable,” says Johnston. Yet he realizes that any program like this, no matter the cost, is out of reach for many families. “I know in my heart that even though we were very thoughtful about pricing, it’s putting it out of range for some people.”
Although Johnston isn’t currently allowed to offer his regular martial arts classes, like Cook, he was surprised when I asked if this program helps him make up for lost income. “I’ll be 100% truthful, that never crossed my mind,” says Johnston, who takes offense to being called an opportunist for the service he’s offering. “I really just saw a need and wanted to make sure we filled that need. The economics of it never crossed my mind.”
Parents who have sent their children to Achieve Martial Arts in the past trust that Johnston will manage their children’s remote learning in a safe and structured way. “My son has attended there for Summer Camp for the past couple years,” says Deanna Reel. “I trust them, which is a difficult thing in this day and time. Being working parents it is beneficial for our family to have him in a more structured environment and still be able to interact with other kids.”
Johnston started publicizing his program the morning after CMS announced their plan for the fall – in fact, he thinks he may have been one of the first businesses to announce a program like this. Although he hasn’t yet filled to capacity, he’s seen a steady stream of inquiries. With the new decision to move to Plan C, he believes he’ll continue to welcome new additions to the program into the start of the school year.