Where Atlanta parents turn when children can’t do online school at home

Meah Pettaway-Johnson, foreground, 7, works on her laptop for her school online class at Girls Inc. in Marietta on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Girls Inc. has opened its center during school hours to provide support to girls in kindergarten through eighth grade as they complete their online school work. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Meah Pettaway-Johnson, foreground, 7, works on her laptop for her school online class at Girls Inc. in Marietta on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Girls Inc. has opened its center during school hours to provide support to girls in kindergarten through eighth grade as they complete their online school work. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

After the pandemic prompted schools to move online, Thea Pettaway noticed her 7-year-old daughter Meah seemed sad. She missed her friends and her routine.

“She kept asking me, ‘Why are we home?’ She would say, ‘I hate coronavirus,’” Pettaway said.

Pettaway struggled, too. Last spring, she used her vacation time to stay home with her daughter. But that wasn’t a long-term solution. Recently, Meah’s school, the International Academy of Smyrna, announced it would begin the year on Aug. 17 with virtual instruction.

“I was just stressed out,” Pettaway said. “I didn’t have any resources to just say, ‘OK, well I can hire a private tutor or have someone come in and babysit her.’”

So she signed up Meah for a new program offered by Girls Inc. of Greater Atlanta. The Marietta-based nonprofit is one of hundreds of after-school providers, childcare centers, churches and community groups to open digital learning hubs throughout the state.

The sites give parents a supervised place to send their child during day to do their online school work. Staffers, in some cases volunteers, help students keep up with their classes, troubleshoot technology problems and even provide a bit of social interaction or extracurricular fun.

“There’s obviously a need, and there’s a lot of programs taking this really seriously and figuring out how to do it safely,” said Katie Landes, director of the Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network.

While they don’t replace school, the programs can support online learning, she said. They have more flexibility to restrict the number of participants and enforce social distancing. And some schools have helped by providing desks, technology support and referring families who need an alternative to at-home learning.

Mayai Carthans, program facilitator, helps Micaela McClesky, 7, with her school online class as students complete their online classes at Girls Inc. in Marietta on August 19. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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In one colorful room at Girls Inc., a handful of masked girls studied their laptop screens intently. Each sat at her own table, strewn with paper, pencils and instructions for logging in to that day’s online classes.

Meah wore earbuds as she watched her school teacher via video. She flashed a thumbs-up and held her notebook close to her computer screen to show her work. Nearby, a Girls Inc. staffer kept an eye on her and the other girls.

The program launched last week with 17 girls. Girls Inc. CEO Tiffany Collie-Bailey expects more children could join as parents seek out help once classes get well underway. With help from Marietta City Schools, they found a church willing to serve as a satellite location if the program continues to grow.

Girls Inc. typically provides after-school, in-school and summer programs. In the months after the coronavirus arrived, they offered a virtual program and also tested out a smaller-than-usual, in-person day camp with safety rules.

Collie-Bailey said they had no cases of COVID-19, and she felt the need to open up during school hours to serve their families, many of whom are essential workers.

About three quarters of the girls who participate in their programs are not reading on grade level, and the majority are Black and brown children, she said.

“We want to level the playing field,” she said. “We just want to make sure that our girls have the same access as everyone else.”

The digital learning program runs from 7:30 am to 3:00 pm, and there’s extended hours for those who want to stay later. The cost for the school-day program is $200 a week; need-based scholarships are available to lower the fee to $140.

The center had to increase its cleaning budget by about $24,000 for the year, Collie-Bailey said. It also secured a grant to pay for building upgrades such as motion-sensing lights and self-flushing toilets to cut down on high-touch areas where the virus may spread.

Programs respond to need

After closing in March, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta reopened 10 sites last week. Most are open during school hours to help children with online learning. The move requires navigating a “tricky balance” between health risks and serving children, said David Jernigan, the organization’s president and CEO.

The clubs can be more nimble than much-larger school districts and operate on a smaller scale, he said. They require masks and have placed children in groups of eight to limit potential exposure to the virus. They’ve also capped participation at a quarter of the usual capacity.

Schools helped to prioritize which club members would benefit the most from attending an in-person program — kids who may have struggled last spring with virtual learning or who don’t have adult supervision.

Several school systems lent a hand. Marietta City Schools created a page on its website listing groups that offer virtual learning support and childcare programs. It also shared schedules, training videos and technology hotlines with providers, said Kimberly Blass, the district’s executive director of external affairs.

“We know what it’s like trying to juggle working and children who are at home learning,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t want to open the doors. It’s not that we are asking them to do something that we wouldn’t do. It’s their ability to serve a smaller number of children.”

Jernigan estimated that opening up amid the pandemic will cost his organization more than $500,000 in extra expenses — from technology updates to safety measures. The clubs raise money to keep their membership fee as affordable as possible, between $60 and $135 per semester.

Up to 48 children can attend the Chamblee club, and it was nearly filled within the first week, said executive director LaSonya Hendrix. Many of the club’s families speak Spanish, and the language barrier makes it tough for some parents to help with school work, she said.

In the first few days, her team got kids logged in and sorted out which online platforms teachers were using.

Milly Marroquin, a DeKalb County fifth grader, said it’s been fun to see her friends again at the Chamblee club and “nice to be out of the house.” Her mother, Gloria Ramirez, said it was a relief when the club opened during the day. She had been considering finding a new job where she could work the night shift.

“I work a full-time job from 9-to-4, and I just didn’t have enough time to help her out with her homework. It’s still kind of difficult,” she said.

The YMCA of Metro Atlanta this week launched a school-day program at 16 sites for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. On the first day, 366 children showed up, with attendance expected to grow.

Children and staff must wear masks, except during outdoor or physical activities when social distancing is in effect.

Over the summer, about 260 coronavirus cases were linked to attendees and staffers at a North Georgia YMCA overnight camp. Staff were required to wear masks but campers were not, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said.

Landes said there’s a big difference between a day program and a residential camp. She said providers have learned lessons about how to run programs more safely.

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, which licenses child-care programs, recommends face coverings for employees and older children, not for those under age 2.

In recent weeks, the agency added a search function to its website to allow parents to find providers offering full-time care for school-age children. It also will receive up to $19 million in federal coronavirus aid allocated by Gov. Brian Kemp. The money will help low-income families pay for child care if their school is offering only online learning.

Pettaway hopes other groups will open up programs like the one run by Girls Inc. She said her daughter came home after the first few days excited and full of stories: “She’s been very happy.”

How to find a childcare provider

Families can search online to find programs offering school-day programs: