'Pandemic pods' give kids space to learn, play
Monday marked the first day of school for thousands of students across the suburbs who are starting the new year the way they ended the last one: virtually.
But rather than stay at home, a small number of them packed a lunch and brought their laptops and headphones to some of the new, unconventional learning spaces beginning to pop up inside gyms, fitness and dance studios, park district facilities and community centers.
Called "pandemic pods" by some, the locations are coworking spaces of sorts for elementary and middle school students in the COVID-19 era.
The venues provide each student with a desk, chair and Wi-Fi while pupils follow their school's e-learning schedule. And during breaks in the day or once class is dismissed, there are opportunities for physical activity, arts and crafts, and social interaction with peers -- so long as it's at a 6-foot distance.
The benefits of the pods may be just as much about the parents who've found it difficult to balance demanding jobs and schedules with at-home virtual learning.
"It's a huge issue for parents who work. I didn't feel like the school districts offered any options for these parents," said Marianne O'Hara, co-owner of Focus Martial Arts & Fitness in Lake in the Hills, which opened its "Learning Center Plus" Monday morning.
The 5,000-square-foot martial arts studio at Route 31 and Virginia Road -- normally the host of martial arts and self-defense classes -- has been transformed into a makeshift classroom, with space for up to two dozen desk pods. Each pod is a 10-by-10-foot square of tic-tac-toe floor mats where students tune into their online class sessions while three staff members are nearby to help with assignments when needed.
During breaks in the day, students are able to try out some of the studio's martial arts equipment, do a ninja obstacle course or go outside, like recess.
"We're going to offer them fun activities. A lot them are just going to be dying to get up and around because it's a long day sitting at the computer," said O'Hara, who has a master's degree in special education and has worked as a support staffer in Crystal Lake High School District 155 and teacher in Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59.
Hours follow a typical school day schedule, and parents can drop off their kids for any combination of days or hours that works for them, whether it's one or two days a week or full-time. The cost ranges from $5 to $7 an hour.
"We will be running this as long as the schools are going virtual," O'Hara said. "It could be the whole school year."
In downtown Mount Prospect, Bill Shimuk's storefront Threshold Martial Arts studio is about half the size of Focus', so he compares his e-learning pod setup to something reminiscent of an old country schoolhouse.
When the dozen or so students from Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights aren't signed into their online classes, they'll be on fitness breaks, including martial arts or walks to the library or local parks, he says. And there are plans to do some of the school year traditions they might miss out on, such as picture day, carving pumpkins for Halloween, and wearing school spirit gear.
"The goal is to get kids out of the idea of sitting alone at a table for seven hours a day into something that is as closely as possible replicating a school," said Shimuk, whose son is in the program.
Some of the larger virtual learning centers that have opened in recent weeks are hosted by the YMCA at nine suburban locations -- mainly at fitness centers but also at some schools in Naperville and a church in Antioch.
Some community centers have yoga and exercise studios large enough to accommodate 15 students per pod. Activities like music and arts and crafts are offered as bookends to the online learning day, according to Jill Doerner, the senior vice president of operations and strategic initiatives at the YMCA of Metro Chicago.
More and more park districts are also starting to roll out pods in the coming weeks, some having forged partnerships with area school districts.
The Northbrook Park District's Northbrook Sports Center will host a Community TIES program, where K-8 students will be able to take online classes and participate in indoor and outdoor games, sports, and arts and crafts. First priority is given to residents and teachers in five area school districts, though the program is also open to nonresident families, officials said.
The Naperville Park District's Alfred Rubin Riverwalk Community Center will have room for up to 50 students in grades K-5, and the 95th Street Center about 40 students. The first site follows the Naperville Unit District 203 schedule, the latter Indian Prairie Unit District 204, though the program is open to all.
"It's an extension of the day camp type of experience," said Brad Wilson, the district's director of recreation and facilities. "But it has that e-learning component."