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Camp coordinates learning centers for district’s students

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Josiah McKeon, center, helps a Jackson Primary School student with his schoolwork at the Camp Susque Learning Site at the Newberry Church of Christ in Newberry on Wednesday.

In an answer to a need in the Williamsport Area School District, Camp Susque has set up learning sites throughout the district to offer a safe way for students to spend remote days, which are factored into the hybrid option with which the district reopened this fall.

Last spring when the governor ordered schools to be closed, Camp Susque, located in Trout Run, had provided internet hotspots for students who did not have reliable internet access available.

“We reacted by analyzing what resources we had that would be useful to the community,” said Peter Swift, the camp’s director.

One of the things they realized they had was high-quality internet service, which they made available in the camp’s parking lot.

When the district announced that classes would reopen in the hybrid schedule, Swift said that he realized that the bigger issue this fall would be that parents would be back at work and no longer at home with their children.

“It’s not just getting the internet, it’s getting someone to care for your kid and help them to do

schoolwork. To succeed and excel and not fall backwards or stay where they are,” Swift said.

The first thought was to offer space at the camp. Some of their summer staff was also available as some colleges had switched to remote learning for the fall semester.

“They’re trained. They’re used to working with kids, caring for them. They have a lot of training and expertise in the area, so we thought we could offer this service,” he explained.

He said they realized at that point that the camp was just one small organization and with the need for social distancing, they would not be able to provide the service for that many people.

That was when the camp started seeking partners in the community to help, Swift shared.

“We thought churches generally have large open spaces that are relatively underutilized Monday through Friday during the day,” he said.

Because the camp works with churches on a regular basis, they were able to connect with churches that they had worked with in the past. Some of the churches were already aware of the problem because many in their congregations were dealing with the situation and the camp was able to form a coalition to set up the learning sites.

The sites are offered free of charge to students K-3 and are located in areas near elementary schools in the district. The goal was to have two sites for each school so that the A and B groups could both be handled on alternating days with all sites open on Fridays.

He noted that students are going to the sites with the same students that they are going to school with so that they’re not increasing their level of exposure to COVID-19.

There are currently around 200 students at all the sites and at this time there are waiting lists for a couple of the sites. Students must register to attend learning sites.

Students bring their Chromebooks and work on school projects while at the sites. Help with schoolwork is available if needed and he noted that the district has been helpful in providing tech support to the sites.

The children are socially distanced during their time at the sites and the camp helps the staff at each one to obtain background checks and to maintain a level of transparency, Swift said.

Because of funding which districts in the state received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meals are offered free of charge. The meals are picked up at the schools and brought to the sites.

Swift said that as of now, the sites are relying on volunteers, with about a third of the staff being paid. He added that the goal is to have all staff paid, but that depends on receiving funding.

With less than a month into the school year, Swift said that running the sites has cost the camp around $40,000 for such things as overhead, paying staff and installing reliable internet at the sites. The Lycoming County Commissioners had set aside $1.5 million for learning sites, which could offer the camp funds to expand. As yet, there is no movement on this.

“Early on they were very encouraging, but I think just some of the difficulties of the rules and regulations of how they fund and who they fund, the religious aspects of our program,” Swift said, adding that the uncertainty about funding has slowed plans the camp had to expand the learning sites to areas throughout the county and also to more grade levels.

“But, we’ve had to scale it back because the bills are piling up and it’s a free program and we’re not charging for it. It’s a challenge for us,” he said.

Swift said that the camp is a religious organization and while they care for the spiritual life of the students, parents have the right to opt students out of religious activities and have their child participate in an alternate activity.

Although they would like to expand, Swift noted that “it has to be a community effort” and because they don’t charge for the learning sites, “we need a lot of help to do it.”

“We realize that the people that are most impacted by this are the ones that are least able to pay,” he stated. “It’s the single-parent households and the working families that where this is really hitting hard.”

“I think I can speak for all of our staff and all of the sites that are in this, we want to love and support the families in our community because of the love that Christ has put in our hearts. So this is born out the responsibility we feel to these families and it is born out of our religion as well,” he shared.

Monetary donations for these programs can be made by going to the camp’s website.

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