YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A gymnasium at the YMCA of Youngstown’s Central Branch normally used for basketball – now idle because of the coronavirus pandemic – will experience new activity in a few weeks.
Instead of the dribbling and running normally associated with the venue, students carrying laptops and other supplies will come into the space for their virtual school days as part of a new initiative.
It is one of the spaces that YMCA is pressing into service as it launches its scholastic support program, which will provide a daytime venue and resources for Youngstown area students starting the academic year online. It is preparing other spaces at the Central Branch as well for students and at the Davis Family Branch in Boardman.
The program is targeted to local school systems that offer virtual instruction.
“Naturally, Youngstown City Schools is 100% virtual to start so we wanted to make sure we can provide support for them. But of course any school system that is on that type of program we’re open to supporting,” says Shawn Armstrong, executive director of the Central Branch.
“This program fits directly with our mission at the YMCA, where we build strong communities through youth development,” adds Tom Gacse, CEO of the Youngstown Y. “The Y is happy to step up and provide a place where the children can go have the virtual classroom or virtual learning safe space.”
Throughout the pandemic, YMCA has supported the community and found ways to pivot by providing child care and hosting blood drives, Armstrong says. With school resuming and many districts starting with completely online instruction, placing new burdens on working parents, the scholastic support program seemed like the best way to support the community.
“Everything’s different in this COVID pandemic world that we’re in now,” Gacse says. “My directive as CEO is to find ways where we can impact our community in positive ways and make our community stronger in mind, spirit and body.”
Nikki Murray, Davis Branch day camp director and youth and teen director, says the branch will use its recreation center, a classroom and a community room for the program.
YMCA is working with local health departments to make sure that safety protocols are in place, Gacse says. Students will be spaced further apart than the six-foot social distancing recommended.
Both branches also are performing upgrades to ensure that their Wi-Fi capacity is up to accommodating the streaming and online capability students will require.
“We have worked with our internet provider to boost our Wi-Fi in the areas that we’ll be programming from so that won’t be an issue,” Armstrong says.
“We have to make sure kids can get to online programs and have access without any interruptions,” Murray adds.
The Y branches will provide scholastic and technical support as well.
“Students will be able to use our facility and not necessarily be alone. So you have a bit of the social aspect – with the social distancing, of course – within our facility,” Armstrong says.
Staff will be trained and qualified to help the participating students succeed academically. “Everyone involved in this program is a college graduate or in college to become a teacher,” Murray says.
Students also will have programs such as swimming and “a whole plethora of activities” available, Armstrong says. Plus the program will offer students lunch and a snack.
Youngstown City School District families will be able to pick up district-issued computers Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. Remote instruction begins Sept. 8.
The district appreciates the support organizations such as the YMCA provide to families “during this difficult and unprecedented time,” says spokeswoman Denise Dick.
“As we have decided to operate with fully remote instruction to start the school year, the program being offered by the YMCA may allow parents and guardians of YCSD scholars, as well as scholars from other districts, the option to have their scholars learning in a supervised environment while the parents/guardians are at work,” Dick says.
“It’s open to anyone; but the ones who have the virtual programming only, they definitely need a place for their children to do that,” Gacse says.
The Davis Branch is working primarily with the Boardman Local School District, but families in surrounding school systems including Poland, South Range, Canfield and Columbiana have expressed interest, Murray says.
The branch might also take in Youngstown students should the Central Branch slots get filled, she says.
The branches plan to follow a 9:1 ratio of students to staff, Armstrong says. The initial plan is to start with 36 students at Central Branch and 18 at Boardman. But that could change.
“Of course, we have the capacity to expand beyond that,” Armstrong says. “We’re really open to what the community needs.”
In addition to working with the schools, the YMCA is in contact with shelters to help children housed there cope with online learning. These include the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley, Sojourner House and Daybreak Youth Crisis Center, according to Armstrong.
“Those homeless kids, when their parents are at work, they can’t be at the shelter alone,” he says. “We’ll open up our doors and provide support for them during that time.”
YMCA officials are still determining what the program will cost the organization and potential funding sources, as well as how much it will charge per student. But the focus is on community need, Armstrong says.
“There will be a cost associated with the program, of course. We’re working through those details,” he says.
The cost of the program “won’t be an obstacle,” Gacse promises, and financial assistance will be available.
Pictured: The Central YMCA is boosting Wi-Fi to accommodate students, says branch director Shawn Armstrong.