Marianne O’Hara is the mom of five kids, taught special education for 13 years and knew she needed a plan.
She and her husband, Jim, own Focus Martial Arts & Fitness in Lake in the Hills in the Northwest Suburbs. They had a space, and as local classes were set to start remotely in August, they had an idea.
“Mostly, we knew we needed a safe, clean space for kids whose parents work full-time,” Marianne O’Hara says. “A lot of these parents did not have any options when school districts rolled out a plan to learn remotely a week and half before school started. Some parents were not prepared, and a lot were single moms who have jobs out of the home and nowhere to put their child.”
The O’Haras converted their karate dojo from a fitness center into a learning center, complete with socially distanced desks, “coaches” available to make sure that kids can access online classes and scheduled exercise time.
Focus Martial Arts & Fitness becomes Focus Learning Center during the school day and will remain open as long as classes in the area are run remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conversion of play spaces to learning spaces has taken off across Chicagoland.
Families whose parents have jobs that aren’t remote can find solutions that ensure their children are monitored, safe and learning even as classes are taught through a computer.
Little Beans Cafe in Evanston built an additional classroom so that kids can be spaced based on age.
“It’s important to keep it socially distanced,” says Shannon Valko, owner of Little Beans Cafe. “We have all the ages separated and pod-based, but there’s also another separate room for parents who are co-working. The pods can all be on a schedule and have a recess essentially without crossing each other. It’s interesting to figure out, because younger groups aren’t learning, but older kids will submit a schedule for the day and our virtual-learning support person will try to match up breaks for time to eat and have gym and get away from screens.”
Little Beans Cafe also created a space for parents who are working remotely to take calls, hold meetings and guarantee quiet time to finish reports while their kids are monitored in a healthy environment.
The co-working space in addition to the virtual-learning support gives parents who are trying to hold meetings while avoiding cameo appearances by their toddlers a place to know that both parent and kids are safe and supported.
In the city, Windy City Fieldhouse is opening its space with a similar idea. With eight large activity courts, all of which are separated by a curtain, the fieldhouse can hold nearly 100 students separated into pods of 8-10.
A coach will make sure that kids are properly connected and help troubleshoot virtual learning issues. Parents can sign up for spaces in blocks of a half day or full day.
“Obviously, we’re pretty well known when it comes to after-school and sports classes,” says Brandon Rhame, general manager at Windy City Fieldhouse. “We’ve been able to do camps during the summer, so getting those kids in here and keeping them safe is something we’ve already worked on. Parents still have to go to work, and they can’t be at home all day, every day, so we’ve talked to our clientele who have said that they don’t all need a full day, many need part of a day. They have to make phone calls or they have to get into a meeting.”
Windy City partnered with Pearachute, an online company that helps find deals to children’s activities across the city, to create the learning spaces at a reduced rate for families.
“We have this big space,” Rhame says. “What can we do with it knowing that parents are in need of child care services?”
All of the spaces available have plans to separate learners by age group, avoiding putting kindergartners with fifth graders because their learning styles are so different. Rates also vary by the amount of time needed (half-day or full-day) and as space becomes available. Once a learning pod is created, those kids will stay together through the duration of a session (two weeks or more), to help monitor contact.
“We’re listening to parents in other programs,” says Jim O’Hara of Focus. “We had space that was not being used during (school) time and that these parents needed help with their kids. It immediately got a lot of response. We had people calling and saying ‘Oh my God, this is a lifesaver!’”
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