Kaitlyn Harrison sat between 8-year-old son Axel and 7-year-old daughter Averley, all three with laptop screens aglow inside an otherwise darkened room at Learning Ground Co-Op.
Some of the TownMall of Westminster space usually occupied by Battleground Lounge is being used as an alternative location for online learning while Carroll County Public Schools is in virtual mode to start the year. Battleground isn’t open right now during the coronavirus pandemic, so Harrison and Cindy Flohr came up with the idea about three months ago and wound up utilizing some space after clearing it with mall management.
Parents and volunteers were planning to come in and be responsible for small groups, and Flohr said Learning Ground was going to charge $25 per day for its services (internet access, space, etc.) from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. After-school care would be an additional $5, Flohr said.
Their proposal hit a snag last week, Flohr said, when the Maryland State Department of Education served Learning Ground a cease-and-desist order for trying to operate child care services without a license. A quick revision left Learning Ground now offering its service free of charge, Flohr said.
Harrison, a downtown Westminster resident, knew where she was headed Tuesday afternoon after starting the first day of school at home, where third-grader Axel and second-grader Averley tried to log into their classes at Sandymount Elementary School while their newborn sibling needed mom’s focus.
“This morning was rough,” said Harrison, with Averley on her right and Axel to her left. “I wanted to start homeschooling today ... I’m not joking. They did this at the end of spring, [but] it’s just different and it’s more demanding. She needs help at the same time he needs help, and then the baby is crying. And my husband is working from home, too. So we’re all like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Harrison and Flohr liken their idea to a “pandemic pod,” an educational trend that gives small groups a chance for private tutoring when they otherwise cannot be in school for in-person learning.
While the younger crowd can find a place to plug in at places such as Learning Ground Co-Op, Carroll Coworking, a remote office and learning space near the TownMall’s quiet food court, caters more to the teenage student who might want a break from home. Nik Gripton, who owns NG Marketing and is operating the mall location, said Carroll Coworking is providing unlimited internet access and space for $60 per month. Think of it as an internet cafe of sorts, Gripton and Flohr said.
Across from that is another small location associated with Carroll Coworking, and Gripton said a former Carroll County teacher is renting it for conference-room style learning sessions equipped with a large table and TV screen in order to connect virtually.
Things were relatively quiet in the mall Tuesday ― Harrison and her children were the only ones using the Learning Ground space in the afternoon ― but Flohr said she hopes business picks up as the week progresses. And she’s not done with trying to go forward with her and Harrison’s original proposal.
“It was, how can we help one another?” Flohr said. “The people who work from home, this is going to help. The people we were trying to help originally, the ones who have to go to work and needed a safe place for their kids ... we haven’t given up on that yet.
"I had to call those families who had registered, and I had to break it to every one of those families. And the tears that I faced having to do that. We have received such an overwhelming support to first be trying to help the Carroll County Public Schools families, and second, feed into businesses that are already existing and suffering because of the COVID. Because the malls are dying across the United States.”
Meanwhile, close to 80 Boys & Girls Club of Westminster members filled the facility on Main Street for virtual learning. Development Director Debbie Leazer said every student has a station, complete with 6 feet of working space and school supplies to call their own.
When Carroll expands to hybrid learning, Leazer said the Boys & Girls Club will be able to accommodate more than 150 students, with days set aside for cleaning the facility.
The organization made a transition from after-school programs to a full-day model, she said, and started writing grants for more computers and desktop materials. Some retired teachers and current teachers have offered to provide tutoring, and Leazer said much of that will take place virtually.
Other than a few people forgetting user names or passwords, Leazer said things went well on the first day of learning.
“This morning’s challenge was getting everybody logged in ... but we finally got everybody online with their headsets on and learning,” Leazer said. “We all just sort of took a breath of fresh air at that moment when everybody was working. Actually, it went pretty smoothly.”