ITHACA, N.Y. –– Though once rare, virtual learning has become the norm for many students since March, as states and school districts around the country closed classrooms out of fear that they could become coronavirus infection centers. 

The Ithaca City School District was one of these, having to build a virtual learning curriculum and infrastructure on the fly so that students could continue their education from the safety of home. But myriad complications came with that necessary decision –– including most prominently that if students were home, many would need parents to also stay home from work to provide supervision. Additionally, through the design of online curriculum it soon became clear that some students, often from lower income families, don’t have sufficient access to broadband internet at home to support their learning regimens. 

In response to this, places like the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) have launched daily programs that provide students with not only a place to go where they are supervised and socially distanced, freeing their parents up to return to work if they can, but also stable internet access for their virtual classes, corresponding to whatever school’s schedule they normally attend. 

GIAC has focused the program on inviting families that are known to the organization already, having sent their children there for any variety of program or activity in the past, said Brandon Blas, the center’s Youth Program Coordinator who has been one of the architects of the virtual learning sessions. The program is held four days a week, with Wednesdays reserved for more staff training and any cleaning protocols that need to be undertaken. 

“We wanted to give them a space where they can come here, (if) parents had to go back to work, some of the kids weren’t getting what they needed when they were at home as far as learning goes,” Blas said. “So just making sure it is a safe place for them to come and then also being able to provide that learning piece for them and help them out with that. Also secure internet access and everything they would need to be able to take on virtual learning and make it as easy and comfortable as possible.”

Brandon Blas, Youth Program Coordinator at GIAC. (Photo by Matt Butler)

Blas said GIAC had enhanced its internet access in advance of inviting kids into the building, as well as purchasing headphones, pencils, papers and glue-sticks. He also said the center received crucial help from the local Staples store, which ran a fundraising drive in which customers could donate money to provide supplies as they made their own purchases, resulting in a van of materials being delivered to GIAC for use by the students.

ICSD has been on board with the program, working with GIAC to make sure students are able to access everything they would be able to if they were in school, similar to the district’s efforts to help students who are learning virtually from their actual homes. 

To ensure safety, GIAC has established a temperature check as a preventative method to protect from COVID and sign-in list to make sure the center knows who is going in and out in case of a contact tracing need, plus sanitization measures. 

All has not been smooth sailing to get the program up and running Blas said. The program had some growing pains early on, having to adjust to different children’s schedules, particularly those coming from different schools around ICSD. Blas said nearly every elementary and middle school is represented among the children who come in daily for virtual learning.

“It’s a safe space,” Blas said. “Kids can get the additional help they need. (…) Kids had gotten behind what they would have been learning in person ever since March, so we’re trying to get them caught up to speed.”

Additionally, GIAC lost several participants when ICSD schools reopened for in-person classes on Oct. 5, leaving them with 18 students out of 44 potential spots. Before that, the center had been helping 34 students as ICSD held fully virtual learning from Sept. 13 until reopening classes.

However, more students may soon be coming to GIAC as the district closes some schools in light of positive coronavirus cases—Ithaca High School, for one example, is closed until Nov. 6 as a result of three positive cases. GIAC has limited eligibility for the program to kindergarten through sixth graders to maintain low density in the building, but the IHS situation is indicative of what could be ahead for other schools around the area.

Blas said there are plans to potentially open an after-school program that could allow students to come to the building once school lets out for the day, though they would be kept separate from the virtual class program to reduce contact possibilities. 

Southside Community Center is running its own version of the program through Black Hand Universal, which is meeting daily and is aimed at providing a steady, stable learning environment for children, much like GIAC’s program is. Black Hand Universal’s program is held in the West Village apartment complex. The group declined to participate in this story, but those wishing to support Black Hand Universal’s virtual learning efforts can donate here

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com