Abigail Martinez and her two sons, Isaiah and Jayson Salas. Isaiah attends Alternative Learning Center at David Gonzales Park in Pacoima.

As an employee at Tiny Thinkers Preschool in North Hills, Abigail Martinez can’t perform her duties from home. So she was unable to help her children with their online learning during the day.

Her son Isaiah Salas, age 8 and a third-grader, in particular was having trouble using the equipment issued by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and wasn’t paying attention. “I had to take one day off to teach him how to use the hot spot,” said his 28-year-old mother, worried that Isaiah was falling behind in his classwork. 

Martinez, a Pacoima resident and a single mom to sons Isaiah and Jayson, 4, is not alone in trying to navigate her family through the obstacles of distanced learning created by the continued closures of LAUSD campuses because of the pandemic, even though the district began its Fall semester three weeks ago. Others can attest to challenges.

“It’s stressful not to be able to be at home making sure she in logged on and on time not sure what’s going on since I am at work and she is at home,” wrote Misty Alvarez on the San Fernando Sun/El Sol’s Facebook page. “I have to rely on my teenage son to make sure she is doing what she needs.” Another parent wrote, “Teachers aren’t actually teaching, they are telling kids what to work on and expecting parents to facilitate and be their assistant. It’s annoying, I’m over it, it needs to end.”

There were others who said their children were having positive experiences. “My kids are actually doing very well, both in high school,” wrote Maria Cabrera. “As far as teaching goes, teachers have stepped up there game and have been patient.” Maximus Parra wrote, “Is it ideal? Absolutely not. Will I allow it to deter my son from being the amazing student that he is? No. Not for a second. I can maybe see how parents with children that are special needs may be having a hard time. Or families where parents are working and children are home alone. I’m sure there may be other situations. Everyone else…Figure it the hell out.”

But it’s not only parents and students — teachers and administrators are also trying to figure it out.

Parks Alternative Learning Centers

A new program is being offered to provide a distance learning alternative from home. The Safer at Parks Alternative Learning Centers and After School Program, as it’s known, is using recreational centers at more than 50 parks throughout the city of Los Angeles to function as educational childcare centers for low-income elementary and middle-school students, and as locations where children have access to WI-FI and people who can help them with computer issues and studying assistance.

The centers, which opened Aug. 31, operate from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and there is after school care and activities for kids who can remain in the parks until 7 p.m. Children in the program receive breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack.

The public’s response was so great that there is already a waiting list for adding more students.

“During COVID-19, securing childcare is an enormous burden and concern for all working women, but for working-poor mothers it is utterly impossible to navigate without sacrificing food and rent or the health and safety of their families,” said LA Council President Nury Martinez, who worked to include federal funding to help pay for the $10 million program.

“These alternative learning sites provide a solution, while allowing our students, many who do not have WiFi or the space to effectively study at home, a place to get fed, do their schoolwork and stay active in a socially distanced environment,” she said.

Mike Shull, general manager of Recreation and Parks, said the alternative learning program  could “ensure no child is left behind when it comes to their education. This pandemic may have changed our recreation traditions, but it has not kept us from being able to support our communities in a time of need.”

Health and safety protocols are followed, including daily screenings for youth and staff upon arrival, a requirement to wear face masks at all times, maintaining two stable groups of 12, sanitizing breaks, frequent hand washing, and a rotation to outdoor space. All activities are adapted for physical distancing and are non-contact.

Rose Watson, the department’s public information director, said each site can accommodate a maximum of 24 students and a total of 1,200. Because space is limited, students who don’t comply with assistance rules may be removed from the program.

That still offers only a fraction of support for a district with more than 600,000 students, meaning there is still a lot more to figure out until it is deemed safe for LAUSD to re-open its campuses.

While the Alternative Learning Centers program may not help everyone who needs it, it is proving valuable for working mothers like Lilia Cosia, who had gone from working full-time to part-time to be able to help her children with their school work in part because her parents couldn’t do this for her.

“Now because of this program, I can go back to work full-time and help my family,” Cosia said.

“Kind of Like School”

Abigail Martinez takes Isaiah to the David M. Gonzales Recreation Center in Pacoima, one of the parks that has the program, which runs its alternative learning center Monday through Friday for students from first to eighth grade. 

She likes that the layout is “kind of like school,” and “they have somebody watching over [the students].” She said the program is  also helping her save money. Martinez was paying over $600 a month for babysitting, but the program has reduced that cost considerably. So has another program launched by Pacoima Elementary Charter School that her 4-year-old son Jayson attends.

She no longer worries constantly whether Isaiah is doing his schoolwork.

“When I’m at work that’s when my son is doing Zoom,” Martinez said.

Most importantly, Isaiah likes it.

“He says he’s very comfortable. He feels he’s learning and he’s made new friends,” Martinez said. “He comes home very happy. He does his homework and his Zoom on time.”

For more information about the Alternative Learning Centers, visit https://www.laparks.org/alternativelearningcenters