After so many struggles for parents and students at the Rafael Hernandez School in Egleston Square during emergency remote learning in the spring of 2020, the leadership of the school and its active Friends group knew something had to be different for the fall.
As the summer progressed, the district’s plan was to open schools pretty quickly in a hybrid format – going in-person a few days a week and remote the rest. There was even hope that students would return full-time in fairly short order mid-fall. At the time, Hernandez Principal Carolina Brito wondered what might happen if COVID-19 got worse and schools remained closed.
“The numbers of families that became unemployed had grown and we knew also the demand for social services and food had increased,” she said. “When you’re unemployed, you can’t get child care, and to get child care, you had to be employed and if kids weren’t going back, we wondered how that would work. If we re-opened partially for the fall – even for the folks that chose hybrid, you would still be missing three days of work to watch your kids…We asked BPS what the backup plan was if they didn’t open schools and there was none.”
Then, as they soon found out, school was not going to be returning in-person any time soon – and most everyone was going to be remote.
As the shock of that set in, they began to explore what kind of things could be done to accommodate so many of their families. Sara Kilroy, executive director of the long-standing Friends of the Rafael Hernandez School, also stepped in to help. They quizzed their middle-income and more affluent families – most of whom were white – about what they were doing to counter this problem. Most reported they were setting up “pods” with other families – a costly venture that entailed hiring a professional teacher or tutor to conduct school for a small number of kids.
“The answer we got back was pods,” said Brito. “But people were paying $500 a week for them. Even on a collaboration model it’s still unaffordable if you’ve been making $0.”
Yet they needed places for hundreds of students to go to in order for their families to function and for students to get the most out of their COVID-era education.
Kilroy took the lead, with Brito helping, and began to scour every organization in the area that might want to partner with them. Kilroy got very used to the word ‘no’ as she made dozens and dozens of calls. Brito had even less luck working with the district to identify partners.
In the end, the answer was just down the street and around the corner at the Egleston YMCA – where the school and the Y have combined to create a pod, or what is a satellite “remote learning center” for the Hernandez.
“We had so many kids that needed placements and it was so hard and the Y was a godsend,” said Brito. “They had been talking about the same problem at about the same time and they had a voucher system that helped many of our families afford this. It was the best kept secret in Boston.”
Both were willing, in the end, but a lot had to be worked out. There were licensing issues, and the Y had to be retrofitted for schooling. So much had to be done, but where there was a will, there was a pod.
“It was a lot of meetings and a lot of back and forth,” said Kilroy. “We made it happen. We opened in December and we had 26 spots and the number of students has increased. Since we have hybrid, we have 38 students that attend the Hernandez two days and then the Y the rest of the days. So, they get the full five-day learning supports.”
Kilroy said they are now looking to expand the reach as well, and are in the process of finalizing a similar remote learning center for the Hernandez at the Franklin Park Zoo.
Brito said the change in student performance once students in the most vulnerable learning situations reported to the Y was night and day. Students who had been struggling to learn from home suddenly were focused, ready and had their work done on time.
“We noticed very quickly, within a week of our kids being in the remote learning center, increased capacity to stay focused was night and day,” she said. “Having a controlled environment where an adult isn’t stressed out around you makes a huge difference for these kids. Being able to provide the teacher with a point of contact with a person at the Y whose only job was to make sure the kiddoe was working changed a lot of things.”
One family, who wished not to be named, said they had struggled during remote learning to watch their kids during school while they went out to work essential jobs – or to look for other jobs.
“We were stressed finding people to watch the kids during class,” they said. “The kids needed a new environment to learn, to see friends, have more space, be more active, to feel like school one more time. I feel happy and my kids love it. They look happier.”
At the Y, all of the safety protocols are followed, and kids are organized in groups and symptoms are monitored frequently. Trained staff at the Y are in constant contact with Hernandez teachers and Principal Brito. Parents are looped in and everyone communicates well. Aside from that, kids feel less isolated and have a place to burn off energy in down time.
And while some kids have returned to a hybrid in-person model over the past two weeks at the Hernandez, Brito and Kilroy are quick to remind everyone that the need for remote learning centers isn’t over.
First, there are still three days in the hybrid model where kids are not in school. Second, there is a massive space issue that is underreported, but that exists at most every school, including the Hernandez. Both of those raw facts make remote learning centers like the Y continue to be a critical need for families at the school – particularly those who have to work outside the home five days a week.
“Just because schools are in hybrid doesn’t mean they have space to open to everyone,” Brito said. “We can’t offer a seat when the demand outsizes the space available in the school. We have waitlists of kids that want to come back. Having the Y is clutch because then it becomes like a satellite school for our kids. The pandemic isn’t over. We want to fill seats, but can’t. The role of remote learning centers continues to be an essential need. We still have 451 kids enrolled in the Hernandez and we only have room for half of them.”
Praise goes to Kilroy and all of the Hernandez community, which has been an active and advocating group of parents since the 1970s. That base of long-standing support, combined with the ability of the Friends to find partners and have resources devoted to getting the centers off the ground, was an incredible help not every school has.
It is also another reason why they’ve been able to expand the reach, and are very close to having the Zoo as a partner in the next few months if some of the inspection hurdles can be cleared.
“It was an astronomical amount of work to get 30 spots open,” said Brito. “It makes me wonder what could have been done district-wide.”
For those interested in supporting or learning more about the Hernández’s efforts to provide for its community, please consider donating at https://friendsofthehernandez.networkforgood.com/ or for information contact [email protected]