In March of 2020, schools around the country were forced to close to help slow the spread of COVID-19. These closures interrupted in-class learning forcing the educational community to act quickly, implementing remote learning techniques. Most schools in Santa Barbara County were able to make sure every student received a computer and had access to Wi-Fi. However, even with the help of technology many families found themselves struggling to accommodate remote learning while working to provide for their families.
This is how “Just Communities,” a Santa Barbara local non-profit organization, made it possible for families facing tough times to find relief amid the ongoing pandemic. The organization works with the community to hold educational seminars and leadership training for students.
Just Communities’ website states that they “consciously works with people from a diverse cross-section of the community along the lines of race, income, gender, sexual orientation, age, and religious affiliation.” Just-communities.org. Their mission statement is based on leadership building and promoting change through removing all forms of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.
The organization’s Learning PODs pilot program first launched September 14, 2020, and started with four locations serving roughly 52 students. Since then, Just Communities has opened two new sites located at places like Adelante Charter School as well as parks, dance studios, and churches.
Throughout the pandemic, Just Communities has stepped up and provided a safe and educational program to help lessen the achievement gap in our community. They also helped families economically by providing care for children at zero-cost so parents could get back to work. This non-profit has abided by all CDC guidelines and made sure that all employees are paid properly as independent contractors.
I reached out to Just Communities and they were so welcoming in discussing the PODs program and more. I had the opportunity to speak to Karen Hernandez the Program Operations – Manager for Just Communities and Rene Garcia Hernandez who is co-leading the Learning PODs program and led the first Learning Pod Pilot.
“After winter break Santa Barbara county experienced an increase in COVID cases, as a result, we had several students and program leaders who could not return to the Learning PODs and families who didn’t feel safe returning. We closed the PODs down for 2 weeks until we had negative results from program leaders as well as students; we also called families to hear from them and how they felt about returning to the PODs. During the time we were not operating, our program leaders received several calls and emails from teachers wondering and asking why the students were not logged into their classes”—Karen Hernandez
After the holiday season, Santa Barbara County went through one of the highest numbers of COVID cases once again closing many businesses and changing daily schedules for everyone.
“This to me was reaffirming the positive impact that the Learning PODs have made, not only for the students but the teachers as well. Because of the Learning PODs, the students have a safe learning environment where they can progress academically and have social connections”—Karen Hernandez
They told me of a heartwarming story of a family that joined the PODs program. A single mother that had two of her own children at home remote learning from a one-bedroom apartment, as well as five other children in her care, to be supervised. She did her best to help the children although she knew very little English. When Just Communities heard about this family’s situation they automatically made sure there was space in the PODs to add all seven to a location for support. This made it possible for the mother to return to work with the knowledge that her children were in a safe place.
As of early March 2021, vaccinations are being implemented and COVID cases are declining. Schools are on the verge of reopening but not all families feel safe returning to in-person learning. This means that there is a continued need for Learning PODs in support of students who will continue distance learning and that is why we need our community’s support to keep this program in place.
In an effort to support the PODs program, a GoFundMe has been created to help raise money. The money donated will help to provide essential items like pencils, pens, glue, craft materials, water bottles, portable whiteboards, and individualized packaged snacks. Furthermore, funding will sponsor student field trips to local educational activities including the SB Zoo or Botanical Gardens, as well as to providing financial support to compensation of a program leader at an hourly rate of $20.00, totaling $800 a week.