When the Orange County Schools district announced the school year would be online for at least the first nine weeks, longtime Orange County resident Craig Lloyd was already working to find a way to help his youngest daughter who was entering the eighth grade. Lloyd had been mulling the idea of creating an opportunity for a small group of students to meet at a safe location to do their school work under the supervision of a parent.
“We ended up looking and seeing the writing on the wall for school throughout the summer,” Lloyd said. “We thought it would be good to still be able to have some social interaction with other kids, as well as to go in and have that support system set up for them. We looked at the virtual academy and we looked at the other virtual options and we decided we could use that option. Let’s find a facility, have internet and then go in and have that support, and everything.”
He talked with some of his friends and some family connections that he had. Together, they brainstormed ideas on how to make the plan work, creating what’s known as a learning lab. Each parent would supervise one day each week, thus enabling each parent to get in four days of work, and know their child is being chaperoned by somebody they trusted, in a healthy, safe and suportive environment.
They just needed to find a place to hold class. “We turned over every stone,” Lloyd said. “You bet I went to a dozen different locations looking for something that would be the size we needed, the price we can afford, and things like that. We ended up coming up with a Go-Fund Me, and that’s helped a little bit to get started. It’s been working well.”
The group secured a space toward the back of the Husqvarna Forest & Garden building on U.S. 70 in Efland. The area has a larger room, a bathroom and a break room. Following state-mandated guidelines, each desk is at least six feet apart from others.
“The kids like it because they’re able to help support each other,” Lloyd said. “Many of them are in different classes, but some of them are in the same classes. They’re able to communicate back and forth. There’s a parent here, so if there’s trouble getting access or getting in the site, it’s not just a kid fending for himself at home by himself, and giving up. With this, there’s an adult there to go in and help guide them and figure out a solution.”
It also means they don’t have to put in calls to the school system’s Helpdesk, which has been overwhelmed with calls.
“They’re saying next week we’re going to get some hotspots from the school,” Lloyd said. “We’ve been depending on people’s iPhones. They’re maxing out on their data coverage. We’ve got parents going in and they’re usually using it for other things. Now, they’re having to use their own hotspots on their phone. It’s gobbling up their data. All of what the kids are doing is video. So, we’re hoping to get some support from the schools through some WiFi spots and different things like that.”
Some members of the community have chipped in supplies, giving pens, pencils, bottled water, snacks and other items.
“We anticipate nine weeks, but maybe the whole semester. It might be the whole year. So, we wanted to do our part,” said Lloyd, who serves on the COVID task force as a parent representative in the school system.
“They started talking about these learning lab concepts of bringing clusters of kids together,” he said. “I thought that was great. But I didn’t realize it was only for grades K-5. From my understanding, I thought it was something we could participate in. When I found out it was only K-5, I thought, well, I’m going to take this same kind of concept and model and what we’ve heard in other areas say, and we’re just going to develop our own.
“I’ve talked to everybody from the superintendent on down. Teachers know about it. They’ll ask ‘are you in your learning lab?’ We ended up calling it the Northern Orange Learning Lab. We’ve got a mascot and a poster. We’ve got a possum as a mascot. We’re trying to make it as much school-like as we can and give as much support as we can for this as well. It’s just one of those things where there are so many plates spinning for the school system, we said this is something we’ve got the ability to do, we’ve got the connections to do. We’ll just do this ourselves,” Lloyd said.
The Northern Orange Learning Lab has not gone unnoticed. Around 75 different families have reached out to Lloyd to inquire about getting in to the program. But Lloyd said there’s not enough room.
“We have all we can take,” he said. “I can tell you the model for this and tell you how we did it, how we worked it out. But we just don’t have the capacity. This place was the biggest I could find.”
Lloyd said he and the other parents are careful to follow COVID safety rules. Each student and parent gets their temperature checked upon arrival. Face masks, face shields and gloves are available. Hand sanitizer is frequently used. When the students go outside for a break or to burn off energy, the classroom is cleaned and sanitized.
The lab has enough room for five students and two adults. One of Lloyd’s daughter’s, Caitlyn, sometimes volunteers to help with getting set up in the mornings and bringing snacks.
The students are in the lab for a typical school day, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., although most of them leave at 2:30.
Lloyd said the response from the parents of the students has been very positive. “They’re seeing the kids are liking it because they can interact with each other. Some haven’t seen anybody for months. The kids here have known each other, but they’ve never been in the same circles. It’s nice to see them develop new relationships and support systems.”
Anthony Cecil heard about the learning lab through Lloyd, who he’s known nearly all his life. His twins and Lloyd’s youngest daughter grew up together, and are in the eighth grade.
“It’s different,” Cecil said. “My son likes the structure. My daughter, she’s the same way. They like it. They like seeing everybody. I think they need the social interaction more than anything. They all stay pretty focused. I haven’t heard a peep out of anyone in there. Those kids worry about getting their work done.”
Lloyd said the Northern Orange Learning Lab has been successful, but it still has challenges. “We’ve had some difficulty with the WiFi. We’re trying to get Spectrum lined up. We cover the rent and utilities. We split the costs between the families. We don’t know if this is going to be nine weeks, a semester or the whole year. We’re prepared to keep going in as long as we need to,” he said.
He also said he will continue to keep his eyes open for a larger space in hopes of accommodating more kids, provided it’s affordable.
“It would be nice to have a bigger facility because two or three of the kids are in band,” Lloyd said. “Those kids are having to go outside now. There are other businesses out here and I don’t know how appreciative they’re going to be of kids practicing the saxophone outside. Everybody, so far, has really embraced us. It’s been fun.”