Learning Remotely Together: USES Hosts Students in Learning Pods

Figuring out how to do schooling this year is next to impossible with most students under the heavy hand of an all-remote learning plan due to the COVID-19 school building closures, but getting out of the remote rut has come easy for some students through the United South End Settlements (USES) Learning Pods.

USES is one of a handful of innovative non-profit after-school providers who have shifted their expertise to figuring out how to get kids together for remote schooling – helping them to navigate the world of remote school, supporting their parents/families and also providing enrichment in slow times.

To date, it’s been a hit and USES is preparing to add one new pod next week to accommodate more students in the unique and safe setup.

Jose Masso, vice president of programs and operations, said USES closed its doors in March as the surge hit the city, but was able to open back up some of its programming in July for the summer. Through that, they were able to learn how to keep kids and staff safe and healthy while also getting some normalcy into the lives of their families. Soon enough, they wondered if that experience could translate to remote schooling.

“We were able to do the summer successfully and safely,” he said. “That gave us a sense of what we could do with the school year. We talked about how to do this and decided early on to support families that opted for fully remote learning…Not every single family was able to work from home and it was hard for them to be able to monitor students when they had to work. Those that were working from home, it was also hard for them to do their jobs and monitor their child’s schooling. We wanted to support these families and we decided to do it.”

When school started on Sept. 21, they had three pods with children ages 5-13 and they added a fourth pod shortly after. Now, Masso said they are preparing to add a fifth pod to the program in a week or so.

There are currently around 42 kids in the pods, and two adult staff members monitor and support the students in their remote learning every day.

The effort in large part came due to the work of Kaiti Coffin, director of ECE & OST, Mason Williams, Assistant Director of club48 Afterschool Program, and Julia Heinzmann, Arts & STEAM Manager. For those who think opening up a pod would be easy work, Masso said the above staff had their work cut out for them. That’s because the 42 kids don’t go to the same schools, have the same schedules or the same teachers. Everything is different every day, and coordinating it all was a heavy lift.

“Not every students goes to the same school, may not be in the same grade, or may not have the same teacher,” he said. “You’ll have two students with physical education and they need to stand up and then the other students sitting down quietly and in their online classrooms. Coordination can be very hard.”

Each day, students report as early as 8:30 a.m., and bring their laptops with them. After a health screening and safety check, they are off to their pods, and students and staff in different pods don’t mix so there are not tracing issues.

So far, the system has worked and there’s been no major concerns.

“There’s been cases within our community and we responded to them appropriately,” he said. “Thankfully, nothing has affected our program or our ability to open our program. With luck and diligence we’ll be able to continue to support the families this way.”

Inside each pod, students are separated with distance and Plexiglas dividers, and the outdoor space at the Rutland Street facility has proven remarkable to help students get exercise and social time with peers – something that is totally missing from many students stuck full-time at home.

USES has made a decision that they will give staff – who have been more than willing to step up this fall for the students – the Christmas break off with pay through January to prevent burnout.

“We are very happy we were able to support families with the Learning Pods,” said Masso. “It’s about being flexible and that’s certainly something this pandemic has taught us how to be.”

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