Neighborhoods Band Together For Virtual Learning

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As a father of five, Chris Childress was nervous when Anne Arundel County Public Schools announced that the school year would begin virtually this year.

After hearing concerns from many parents, former educators, current educators and community members, Childress founded the Community Network for Severna Park Schools, a resource for families that were impacted by virtual learning.

“At first, it was describing what we thought would be the issues and agreeing that we saw a lot of problems,” Childress said. “We realized that we had to be a part of the solution.”

The group was founded not to fill a gap in education but to alleviate stress from teachers, schools and parents as they navigate virtual learning this fall.

Primarily, the group connects parents to community members who have a skill to offer, whether it be tutoring or some type of enrichment. It also allows parents to engage their children in what Childress calls “pod learning.”

“The basic idea of the pod is a small group of children gathering together to do school together,” Childress said. “It's small because you want to control children’s exposure to the virus.”

Whether the pods meet once a week or every day, many parents are excited about their students engaging with other children.

All of the coordinating and website maintenance is volunteer-based. However, individuals who offer tutoring or any other service may ask for a fee. Childress said they will include any skill or service someone wants to offer, but it must be available to the whole community.

Though it was started in Olde Severna Park, the Community Network for Severna Park Schools quickly grew to include over 10 other neighborhoods.

Betsy Gunia and the West Severna Park Moms Club have been working to bring this initiative to their neighborhood.

“It's myself and a bunch of other parents trying to figure out how best to improve the virtual learning experience while balancing that we can’t be in a big group,” Gunia said.

West Severna Park is currently looking for neighbors who can offer enrichment activities for the students. Gunia said she hopes that neighbors with special skills such as basketball, kayaking, crabbing and fishing will come forward and teach the basics.

“It's never going to be quite the same; we’ll have to wear masks,” Gunia said. “But the fact that we’re coming together as a community to improve our kid’s lives is really nice.”

Their efforts also include installing internet at the community beach so small groups of students can work from the benches. While kids will have to be masked and keep a distance, Gunia is excited for the students to have some social interaction.

Karoline Bowman is coordinating learning pods for Cape Arthur and surrounding neighborhoods in the Folger McKinsey Elementary School district with two other parents.

As a parent to an eighth-grader and a fifth-grader, Bowman is grateful that the program gives students an opportunity to find extra help in certain subjects, while also giving them a chance to interact with kids their age in a controlled environment.

“We are thinking about COVID-19 and about keeping kids and other families safe,” Bowman said. “We are trying to manage them by doing smaller groups and keeping the same kids together and controlling potential exposure.”

Carleen Birnes, a mother of two, was inspired to coordinate a learning pod in Manhattan Beach for eighth-grade girls after watching her own daughter struggle as an introvert with virtual learning.

As a health and wellness coach and the owner of Mantra Fit, Birnes has the unique position of looking at virtual learning from a health standpoint. She said that she hopes using this group as a social outlet and a way to get children out of the house will improve their overall mental wellbeing.

“I'm not really looking at it like I'm going to be filling in the gaps of their education,” Birnes said. “Where I see the greatest need is just being with each other so they don't feel isolated and alone. I’m concerned for their mental health.”

For more information about the Community Network for Severna Park Schools or to get involved, visit www.sites.google.com/view/severnaparkshoolenrichment/home?authuser=0 or email severnaparkschoolenrich@gmail.com.

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