Pupils in a pod

During the summer, Brianne Sherman and her 6-year-old son Logan moved from California to Lexington, Ky. Logan loved going to the Salvation Army’s Boys & Girls Club of the Bluegrass each day, while his mom worked as a secretary in the horseracing industry.

However, like many parents across the country, Sherman found herself in quite a bind when Lexington-area schools announced that they wouldn’t reopen for in-person learning in the fall because of COVID-19.

“I’m a single mom so I have to work full time and with the schools closing, that really wasn’t going to be possible,” she said.

Sherman considered taking a work-from-home position so she could help her son with his schoolwork, but the sales job wasn’t a good fit for her. Logan had been involved in the summer program at the Boys & Girls Club and Sherman was overjoyed when Salvation Army officials asked her if she would benefit from sending him there each day to a “learning pod.”


Learning pods

“I honestly have no idea what I would have done without this program,” she said.

Each day, Logan is at the Learning Pod from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tutors help him get logged in so he can connect with his teachers every morning via Zoom. The tutors also help him with his homework in the afternoons.

“He loves it,” his mother said. “He gets angry if he is not the last person picked up. He wants to be there until the very end.

“It’s been a great program. He had a lot of trouble because we moved so much. So, I’m happy that he loves it there and loves the kids who he’s interacting with.”

The situation was similar for Nicole Love and her husband, Ryan, who recently moved from New York to Lexington. She is the new director of the Early Learning Center at the Lexington Corps, while her husband is a Lexington firefighter.

“We were both committed to our full-time jobs and then the school district here announced that the public schools would be totally virtual to start,” Nicole Love explained. “That puts a burden on the children academically and on the family financially. I start to think through, Who’s going to care for my children on a day-to-day basis? I also wonder, How are my children going to get their learning and academic needs met?

Love said she looked into local childcare centers, but they were expensive and capacity was at a minimum.

“There was definitely a sense of stress and concern as a parent. What am I going to do for my children? They definitely need the adult support as they’re learning,” she said.

The Learning Pod in Lexington was a godsend. Love’s two children, third-grader Connor and first-grader Claire, travel with her to work, though they are in a different wing as they attend school.

“It’s given our family the gift of some stability and consistency and essentially allowed me to continue working,” Love said.

Krista Whitaker, community relations and development coordinator for the Salvation Army’s Lexington Area Services, said most of the surrounding school districts returned to school virtually. That left many parents who work full time in a panic.


Expanding the program

The Salvation Army officials were also looking for a way to help the children living in Hanger Lodge, a shelter attached to the corps.

“We realized we could serve a few children there and opened the program to the public,” she said.

The Army enhanced its broadband and set up small rooms for learning in the Boys & Girls Club. About 30 children come every day from the shelter, Boys & Girls Club programs, and the general public. The children of Salvation Army employees also participated.

“We were able to set those up to where everyone could be socially distanced and stay together as a pod,” Whitaker said. “They come here, they get their breakfast, they get logged in, and they get their assignments. The tutors are here to assist them if they need computer or homework help.” Whitaker said the tutors are mostly from the University of Kentucky and Asbury College.

Many schools around the country are returning remotely this fall, and such learning pods are becoming popular as parents seek to keep their children safe from COVID-19. This summer, The New York Times labeled them “pandemic pods” and defined them as a small group of students who meet outside the classroom.

In Lexington, the students get breakfast, lunch, and dinner to go. The Boys & Girls Club facilities are available when the kids need to take a break and burn off some energy.

“I think it’s been going pretty well,” Whitaker said. “The first few days were challenging, getting everyone logged on. We have multi-aged groups. We have kindergartners through late elementary. They’ve really fallen into a rhythm.”


Following safety protocols

The students wear masks and follow all the social distancing and hand-washing protocols, Whitaker said.

“They don’t fight wearing the masks,” she said. “They’ve gotten used to the routine. It really is a good program because it helps folks stay in a routine at a time when routine is really lacking in most of our lives.”

Whitaker said the Army plans to continue the pods at least through Christmas. The largest school district in the area plans to go back on a hybrid basis sometime during the school year, but no one knows when or how it will happen or what it will look like.

“We’re in through the end of December with the anticipation that we may need to pivot,” she said.

Whitaker said The Salvation Army has received praise from parents.

“It’s not just a matter of somebody watching your child, it’s a safe place for your child and your child is actually getting support logging in and doing schoolwork,” Whitaker said. “We’re happy to be here for the community.”

by Robert Mitchell