Jason Dushim raises his hand Thursday while teammate Addison Holland takes notes during a game of “Jeopardy!” at the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Boys & Girls Clubs in Portland and South Portland have retooled their usual after-school academic and activity programs to help support hybrid distance learning models adopted by each school district during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The clubs, which have been closed for nearly six months, will operate during school hours this fall as remote learning hubs, paid for with federal coronavirus relief funding. They will offer academic support, technology resources, nutritious meals and safe spaces where members can do schoolwork.

The clubs adapted their programs to align with hybrid distance learning models that allow students to attend in-school classes on alternate days or learn remotely full time via the internet. Students will spend days at the clubs when they’re not in school.

School officials in Portland and South Portland sought the remote learning partnerships with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine. Similar agreements are being discussed with the Auburn and Lewiston school systems.

Second-grader River Moreno responds to a question from teacher Carissa Brown, the impact projects director for the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine in South Portland. The class was brainstorming a name for its pod. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Each district is providing training and oversight of club staff to meet COVID-19 health and safety protocols and academic goals. Club staff members are stretching their workdays and tapping years of education and experience working with kids.

“It’s the mission of our organization to work with children and we have very good youth development staff, so it’s a natural fit for us,” said Brian Elowe, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine.

While the clubs usually serve kids ages 6-18, the remote learning programs will serve students in kindergarten through grade 5. Elowe said he hopes to expand the programs to include middle school students as soon as possible.

The Portland club’s three locations – Cumberland Avenue, Sagamore Village and Riverton Park – will serve 140 elementary school students under a $260,000 contract. The South Portland club will serve 100 students under a $140,000 contract.

“It allows our parents to keep working and our students to keep learning in a safe and structured environment,” said Ken Kunin, superintendent of South Portland public schools.

Second-grader Addison Hoglund participates in a class discussion Thursday at the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Auburn/Lewiston Club could serve as many as 80 students each week, Elowe said.

The South Portland club reopened as a distance learning hub this week; all 100 slots are filled. The Portland club will begin operating its three hubs next week; registration for the 140 slots is through the clubs’ website.

Some students will be dropped off and picked up by their parents; others will be bused to the clubs by the school districts.

Daily activities will include a “power hour” of homework help; instruction in language arts, science, math and technology; and art, music, fitness and recreational activities.

Breakfast and lunch will be provided by the school districts, and the clubs will continue to provide grab-and-go meals as they have throughout the pandemic.

“The Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine is providing multiple supports for Portland Public School students and staff to assist in our return to school during the pandemic,” said Superintendent Xavier Botana.

Mika Ly touches a goal post during a socially distanced race Thursday at the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

To meet federal and state COVID-19 health and safety protocols, each club’s maximum capacity will be limited to about 50 percent of normal attendance, mirroring hybrid education models in the schools. Students will be grouped in pods of 10 and will remain with their pod throughout the program.

The clubs have installed hand-washing and sanitizing stations, Plexiglas dividers and signs with mask requirements, social-distancing instructions and daily check-in procedures.

The 13-week contracts with each district pay for additional supplies, training and staffing that has gone from mostly part-time to full-time status.

At the South Portland club Thursday, several elementary school students listened attentively as Carissa Brown explained a math word problem. Everyone wore masks.

A member of the clubs’ administrative team, Brown has many roles, including impact projects director. Now, she’s tapping her bachelor’s degree in education to draw up daily lesson plans and help her young charges stay in their seats and distanced from each other.

River Moreno, center, and Walter Gross raise their hands in response to a question from teacher Carissa Brown. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We just needed all staff on deck,” Brown said. “It’s challenging for everyone right now, especially for the kids. This is typically a place where they come to relax after school.”

Now, it’s a lot more serious, Brown said.

“It adds a different layer of pressure for everyone,” she said. “But this is the closest we’ve been to our mission in six months. It’s redefining what we do and pitching in with great academic programming, a safe environment and a little bit of fun.”


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