‘Virtual learning camps’

Rev. Eric Cummings, the chairman of the Marion County Public School Board, right, looks on as his son, Emmanuel, 14, a freshman at Vanguard High School, takes an online lesson during the Virtual Online Learning Camp at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala.

They are not going to the neighborhood school, and they are not getting their online instruction at home. But they are in class every day, all day … with supervision.

For a small but growing number of Marion County children and their parents, area churches are serving as an alternative to in-person instruction or at-home online classes. The NAACP of Marion County is leading the way, but they are not alone.

“We call them ‘virtual learning camps,’” said Bishop J. David Stockton, president of the local chapter of the NAACP and pastor at one of the participating churches, Greater New Hope Baptist in Silver Springs Shores.

Led by Narvella Haynes, a longtime community children’s advocate and a member of the NAACP’s Education Committee, the virtual learning camps are already up and running at three local churches. Stanton said two more churches are ready to go as soon as they get enough volunteers.

James Bannister, 11, a 6th grade student at Lake Weir Middle School, studies on a Chromebook during the Virtual Online Learning Camp at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala.

The virtual learning camps are small groups of children who have opted for online classes through the Marion County Public Schools but whose parents do not want them left home alone. Stanton said the VLC’s allow for social distancing, temperature checks and online instruction “rather than being left alone to their own devices.”

“It’s part of our evangelism and outreach; we’re going to do it for free,” he said.

Haynes, who works at one of the participating churches, New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, said the first week at her church has gone well. New Zion is pastored by School Board Chairman the Rev. Eric Cummings.

“On the whole, I think it’s going very well,” she said. “There are some technology issues, but other than that, it’s going well.”

Haynes said she believes the VLC’s could be important if a spike in COVID-19 cases were to force schools to close again, serving as an alternative to at-home online learning.

Both Stanton and Haynes said that volunteers assist the children in the VLC’s and that their most important job is to keep the children focused on the computer screen.

“I tell parents, we’re not teachers,” Haynes said. “Our job is to be here so they won’t be home alone.”

Tabernacle of Deliverance in Ocala is also taking part in the NAACP’s VLC’s. Another church that is holding similar instruction program is the Shores Assembly of God, led by Pastor John Delcamp. Shores Assembly is running its school independently from the NAACP.

Narvella Haynes, the site coordinator, left, works with twins, Kelijah and Kenyata Hayes, 12, who are both 7th grade students at Howard Middle School, during the Virtual Online Learning Camp at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala.

The VLC’s limit the number of students who can participate because it makes for a richer learning environment and because volunteers are overseeing the children. Currently most VLC’s have fewer than a dozen children, but they are prepared to go up to 20-25 children, Stanton said. The VCL’s run from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Stanton said there is a need for volunteers to open more VLC’s. He also said the NAACP needs donations to provide meals for the children. Anyone willing to volunteer or donate to the cause is asked to call 352/687-1130. Stanton said $400 is needed daily to cover breakfast and $525 a day for lunch.

The idea of remote learning groups surfaced last summer when a handful of San Francisco parents came up with the idea of creating a “learning pod” and hiring their own teacher. They formed a Facebook group and before long had 40,000 followers – and learning pods began to pop up all over the country.

The difference between the VLC’s and the learning pods, however, is the VLC’s do not have a live teacher and they are free.

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