Cassie Huvler poses for a photo during the Friendly House learning pod program. Huvler runs the pod program as well as an after-school tutoring program. She has a degree in Middle Childhood Education with an emphasis in Math and Science.

MANSFIELD -- More than 2,000 Richland County students are enrolled in fully online learning programs as a result of the pandemic, but many of them are struggling to keep up with their peers. 

Richland County's learning pod program is seeking to provide online students the support they need to get back on track.

“Youth and parents are struggling to meet the requirements of their children’s education remotely,” Judge Steve McKinley of the Richland County Juvenile Court said in January.

McKinley stated the truancy filings in juvenile court have nearly tripled with online learning.

"Attendance is no longer a matter of just are you physically sitting in a chair. Attendance is now tied to schoolwork, so a student has to be performing tasks in order to be counted as present and that seems to be increasing the number of students being counted as truant," he explained.

The court saw more than 440 truancy referrals in three months, according to Teresa Alt, executive director of the Richland County Youth and Family Council. So the court and council partnered with local school districts to create a learning pod program in an effort to re-engage students with their studies and aid families.

Learning pods provide students a safe place to go to for free during the school day. Each pod is staffed with one or more teaching assistants who help students with their schoolwork and make sure they stay on track.

“The program isn't designed to replace traditional in-person schooling because it can't," McKinley said. "But it's an opportunity for the youth that I believe will serve them well and at the same time provide relief to parents and schools during the pandemic.”

Alt told county commissioners that the new effort is aimed at generating greater equity, providing resources to families who otherwise couldn't afford it.

"We have parents telling the court, 'I have to work every day. I get my kids up for school, but they fall back asleep and they miss the Zoom class. What am I supposed to do?' " she said. "If you don't have the resources within your family, or can't purchase those resources yourself, it's tough."

Many of the students come from families who have not been involved with the truancy court in the past. Heather Kushner, director of the Tyger Digital Academy, said there were various reasons virtual learners struggled to keep up at home.

“Some families have indicated that they didn’t know or understand the requirements, there’s been some technology issues, some students didn’t know we were tracking attendance, some students are struggling with the work, some students are having mental-health issues," she explained. 

Black Belt Pro Fitness launched the county’s first learning pod Dec. 14. Additional pods launched after the holidays at the Friendly House, the Salvation Army’s DeWald Community Center, Crossroads Church City Center in Mansfield and Crossroads Church in Shelby.

Students at each pod spend the majority of the day on school work, but also take time for breakfast and lunch (provided and delivered by their school district) and “brain breaks.”

Brain breaks look different for each pod. At the Friendly House, students shoot hoops in the gym or take a dip in the pool. At Black Belt, they practice martial arts or collaborate with peers on writing, art and video production projects.

“We understand that getting them to do academics from 10 to 4:30 without having some breaks is just unrealistic,” said Chris Hershberger, the owner of Black Belt. “We try to mix it up and make it as enjoyable as possible.”

Pods also get support from outside agencies like Catalyst Life Services and Community Action for Capable Youth, which provide homework help and mental health programming.

“Our goal is to be there for support, help them as they need it, kind of destress them so they can be focused on their schoolwork.” said Jamie Starkey, Catalyst’s case management coordinator. “Some of these kids haven’t been interacting with people because of COVID, so coming out of the house can be stressful.”

There are currently about 30 Mansfield students in the pods and 14 in the Shelby pod. Most of the students were referred by the truancy court, but some were referred by teachers who thought the students could use the extra support.

Kushner said the pods have been effective for students who attend them consistently.

“They are doing better. The teachers see them, they are doing their work, it is having a positive impact,” she said. “There are some students that have been referred to a pod that have not consistently attended and I don't know the background or reason behind that.”

Building administrators have seen a big improvement in these kids that are coming in every day, said Paul Walker, curriculum director at Shelby City Schools.

“I’m glad we have this option for these kids this year," Walker said. "This is just another layer to support them.”

The chance to socialize and transition gently back to group settings is another advantage of the pod program.

“These are students who haven't been in a classroom environment for nine months. I can't imagine how that feels socially,” Hershberger said. “We’re constantly making sure that kids understand that it's OK to ask for help.”

Pods enforce social distancing and mask-wearing. Staff clean the pod settings regularly.

“The pods are a way to have some in-person contact and still maintain the social distancing requirements," Kushner said.

Walker praised the students who caught up on coursework through the pod program.

“Kudos to these kids getting back on track with their learning. It’s not easy sometimes,” he said. “Hopefully in time we can get back to our normal learning environment, but in the meantime this is a good way to go.”

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at katie.ellington@richlandsource.com