For the past four months, Pastor Rici Skei has been welcoming nearly a dozen students into her Lowell neighborhood church for what some have been missing since the pandemic shut down schools in March — mentorship, meals, and socialization.

Skei has been a Lowell resident for 14 years, finding ways to lift the historic Fresno community from its spot as the city’s poorest neighborhood. So when a parent came to her asking if there was a way to help her son with school as she worked during the day, Skei said, “absolutely.”

Then she got to work at On Ramps Covenant Church, where she is a co-pastor alongside her husband.

The idea of a “pandemic pod,” a small cohort of students that learn together while campuses are closed, is not new. Many parents in the U.S. have gotten creative with ways to fill the void of not being in school.

But a primary criticism of those pods is that they tend to be only accessible to wealthy families who can pay for a teacher or other adult supervisor.

But the pod at On Ramps, run solely by volunteers, costs nothing for families.

Skei calls the program a “partnership” between parents and the church. Eleven Fresno Unified students show up every weekday for distance learning in what used to be the church’s children’s ministry classrooms.

“Nobody (had) been in here since March because of COVID,” Skei said, “and so we just said, we can’t waste the space.”

About a dozen volunteers come in from anywhere between an hour a week and several hours every day. They come from local universities and the community.

Some serve food, which is either bought with their own money or picked up from a school site offering lunch. Others help oversee online learning. A few seniors drop by later in the day to read or mentor the kids.

“You need a grandma, and you need a grandpa, you know?” Skei said. “So it’s really sweet.”

Schooling during COVID-19

Most of the students come from families with essential workers who don’t have a place for their children to go during the day, said volunteer and parent Jennifer Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, who describes herself as a stay-at-home mom, found herself struggling to keep up with her three children and their online learning in the spring. So when she heard what On Ramps was doing, she signed up.

“I get to drop my kids off and be done with this online stuff?” she remembers thinking.

But when she arrived in August, she wondered if there were enough adults around to help. So she began volunteering.

Each morning, Gonzalez also picks up several other kids in the neighborhood, earning her the title of “bus driver” at the program, she joked.

“I haven’t missed a day,” she said. “We come up with so many fun things — craft ideas, a photo booth.”

Gonzalez said her children are doing much better in school compared to at the end of last year when the pandemic caused the sudden shift to online learning.

“The progress we have made, the difference, it’s just amazing because of this,” she said.

Lowell neighborhood impact

Skei, who has a master’s degree in education, also has a background in school psychology. So the makeshift school inside a church is a little like her two worlds coming together.

“The local neighborhood is our parish; the local residents are our people, all 6,500 of them,” she said. “If there are statistics that are saying reading is low, and math is low, and poverty is high, what can we do to switch that? What can we do to help change the narrative?”

Malachi Ward, 11, is one of the partnership’s success stories, according to Skei. His mother is the parent who initially reached out to Skei about starting the partnership.

Skei said that Malachi is now working at a ninth-grade level despite being in sixth grade. His class participation has increased, and he’s always on time because he’s being supervised.

“He’s just doing so much better in this environment than he would have been at home by himself, or even on campus with the students and with the teacher in person,” she said.

Malachi said he made friends at the church, which has also helped him feel connected compared to the end of the last school year.

“Last year, after everything happened, I was at home by myself,” he said. “And it was harder. So over here, it’s easier, and it helped me get my grades up a little bit better.”

A first grade student who began the school year at the church has since been diagnosed with a learning disability and was able to get on an individualized education program with her school. The disability could have gone unnoticed for much longer if volunteers hadn’t noticed and talked to her parents.

“Now she’s flourishing,” Skei said. “She’s meeting with a speech therapist and (a resource specialist) every day, and so she’s not here in the partnership anymore.”

Skei said there’s no one keeping hard data about students’ success, but she’s heard a lot of positive feedback about the partnership.

“Even if it’s just one student that we get to make a difference in their lives,” she said. “That’s all worth it.”

How it works

When students arrive each morning around 8, they get their temperature checked at the gate and go through a short health survey. They eat breakfast and log into their laptops inside the upstairs classrooms.

The students are divided into different rooms, depending on which school they attend. Siblings from the same household sit together, and desks are spread out for social distancing.

“They’re in their masks all day long except for when they’re eating,” Skei said. “Even if they’re next to their sibling … they’re still masked up. We’re making sure that they’re washing their hands, and their hands are sanitized, and they’re keeping social and physical distancing.”

Although there were instances of children pulling their masks down, a volunteer was always nearby to remind them.

Gonzalez said everyone is “learning as they go” with this new way of life.

For example, Skei said, desks were initially set up like a traditional classroom, facing the front of the room where an adult watches over. But Skei realized she needed to turn the desks around so adults could make sure students were not playing games during class time.

“Now we can see everybody’s screen at the same time,” she said.

And although teachers take care of the instruction, volunteers do have to dole out discipline at times. There’s a room where students can take a timeout to cool off, and she warns students they could lose “Fun Fridays” if they don’t stay on task.

Skei said the setup at On Ramps is a solution to a neighborhood problem that works well because of the interaction the children get.

“They feel the love through meals that they receive. They feel the love through the consistent, healthy, safe adult interaction that they get,” she said. “We’re literally over their shoulders as they are engaging in online learning to make sure that they know what they’re doing.”

Although there have been no cases of COVID-19 within students, there have been some close calls that turned out negative with volunteers and student family members, Gonzalez said. Before the results came in, the affected student or volunteer was asked to quarantine.

CalViva helps On Ramps

Although the partnership runs on volunteers, it still takes money to run the program, Skei said. She was worried they might have to shut down for good this month without help.

“No one is going back to campus anytime soon,” Skei said, “and we were afraid that we were going to have to stop at Christmas break.”

But a representative from CalViva Health heard about what On Ramps was doing and arranged to get a check to Skei to continue the program into the new year.

The $5,000 will buy plexiglass barriers for lunch tables, sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, cleaning supplies, and a stipend for volunteers who help out every day, Skei said.

She would like to welcome a few more Lowell neighborhood students, but “anything past that, I think it would become unsustainable. Their safety is a priority, and we would not want to overextend ourselves.”

She said safe social interaction is what many children are missing, which could affect mental health. She believes the partnership is alleviating that risk.

“Here’s the deal,” she said. “Either the students are at home by themselves, having a difficult time engaging in online learning, or they’re here at our site with supportive, consistent, safe adults participating in their online learning. Which would you rather have?”

The Education Lab is a local journalism initiative that highlights education issues critical to the advancement of the San Joaquin Valley. It is funded by donors. Read more from The Bee’s Education Lab on our website.

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