Boys & Girls Club of McAllen provides virtual classrooms to children of frontline workers

McALLEN — Many schools throughout the country have begun the new school year while attempting to adhere to social distancing practices, and many schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley began classes this week with remote learning curriculums.

While the safety of students and staff has been at the forefront of the decisions made pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning has created a conundrum for households in which parents are frontline workers.

The Boys & Girls Club of McAllen has stepped up to provide some relief for those parents in the form of Back to School Mash Up, a program aimed at helping these families by providing a safe space for students to attend virtual classes.

“One of the issues that we saw rising from this was that a lot of children are from homes where both parents work or single-parent households where the parent might be working all day,” Yirla González Nolan, chief development officer, said Tuesday. “(Students) lack supervision throughout the day, and in some instances they lack WiFi.”

The children attend one of two club locations in McAllen — the Glen E. & Rita K. Roney Center, located at 4501 N. 34th St.; and the Othal E. Brand Center, located at 2620 W. Galveston.

Upon entering the clubhouses, temperatures are immediately checked using an infrared thermometer that’s non-contact and applied near the forehead, and again every two hours.

Hand-washing stations are established with visual instructions on how to properly wash hands. There is also a large sign reminding members to always wear their masks.

“The children come and they get to do their homework,” Nolan said. “We have our staff who are there to assist them throughout the day. The students stay safe, but also the parents get to work and not feel like they have to give up some hours at work.”

Brenda Guerrera is the unit director at the Roney Center said that teachers and parents provide a schedule announcing when they will go live. Instructors are on hand to assist the children, who range in age from 6 to 12, while others work on their own.

“We have a lot of parents who are nurses and teachers,” Guerrera said. “They really do need our services.”

There are currently 70 students registered in the program, which is expected to run for the next five weeks. Nearly all of the students attended the club’s summer camp as well.

While most students have their own tablets and laptops, some provided by school districts and others personal, the club also provides Google Chromebooks for those who were unable to obtain the tools needed for a virtual classroom.

“Even if there’s a child in the community who’s not a Boys & Girls Club member, we’re open to them coming in,” Nolan said. “They do become a member. It’s $100, but that basically covers the five weeks. We’re trying to be here at least until they go back to school. When you think about it, it’s a lot cheaper than daycare services.”

The club also provides monetary assistance for any non-members who may not be able to afford the $100 fee for the program, which includes breakfast and lunch provided by McAllen ISD. After 3 p.m., the students are taken outside where they participate in outdoor activities.

Each child is assigned to a classroom where they spend most of their day with youth development professionals, who have undergone extra training to prepare them with the services they will be providing to the students throughout the five-week program.

Krystal Maravilla, 20, has been a youth development professional for two years. She said that the program has been quite different from what she’s experienced in her previous years working with the club, whereas now she finds herself in more of a teacher role.

“It’s a huge change, but it’s an experience for all of us,” Maravilla said. “It affects a lot of us, especially the kids. You just always have to show them the positive side of all this.”

Genelle Quintanilla, 9, is a fourth grader at Ben Milam Elementary School. She said that her favorite subject is math, and she hopes to someday become a doctor. While she said that the program has been a great experience so far and made her feel safe, she still described the entire experience as very different.

“It’s been great,” Quintanilla said. “I like how the teachers really help me, and I really enjoy it. It’s very different than what I used to do.”

As Guerrera and Nolan showed The Monitor around the clubhouse, they came to a stop outside a classroom with about a dozen students inside, all socially distanced and wearing masks.

As a young boy nearest to the window worked on an assignment with an iPad, he caught the attention of Guerrera because he was wearing his mask over his chin like a chinstrap. As they made eye contact, Guerrera raised her eyebrows and motioned toward her chin, to which the boy quickly corrected himself.

“It’s definitely been a learning curve,” Nolan said. “Our staff have been going through a big learning curve, and they just have to learn a lot of new things. Really their roles have become so much bigger because there’s additional skills they’ve had to learn and perform like cleaning and making sure that the kids have their faces covered.”

“We’re so proud of the staff right now because they’re the ones who’ve been taking on a lot of this responsibility.”

Enrollment is still open for the Back To School Mash Up. Registration is available online at www.bgcmcallen.net.