Pandemic Online Learning: 3 Ways St. Mary’s Center Successfully Integrated Distance Learning during COVID-19 

By: Lakeisha Franklin, Director, St. Mary’s Workforce Development & Learning Resource Center

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed society outside the realms of normalcy! From how we approach everyday interactions like walking down a crowded street to shopping for groceries; how we interact with one another has been dramatically transformed. We cope each day with adapting to our “new normal”.  

One entity that has hit almost every household, and is now a daily topic on the news, is education! The shift in our normalcy didn’t stop at limiting the number of people in a given space, it has caused us to shift and adapt to how we approach teaching/learning to meet the needs of our clients. The Workforce Development & Learning Resource Center at St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children, seamlessly incorporated a distance learning model at a time when many organizations and school districts initially struggled with how to meet the needs of the students in a remote setting. 

The Workforce Development & Learning Resource Center at St Mary’s has always been innovative and forward-thinking. While still keeping up our standard of quality instruction and a holistic approach to teaching, St. Mary’s was able to transition to remote learning without a break in instruction. We were already working on an online learning model designed to meet the needs of our working students when the pandemic broke. Utilizing resources like Edgenuity, a web based learning aid, and partnering with tech organizations like Tech Goes Home,our shift to distance learning has allowed us to continue to provide a comprehensive quality program for our students without sacrificing our holistic approach to learning and instruction.  

Staying motivated is the key to online learning success. 

Approximately 97% of the women that St. Mary’s serves are mothers. The clients in our programs are not only figuring out how to move forward with their own education, but also how to be a source of information and stability for their own children. When women enter our program the commonality amongst them is the desire to be a source of inspiration for their children, showing that “Mom did it!” Our client’s children are typically the primary motivators for success. Knowing this, it is imperative that the Workforce Development & Learning Resource Center create avenues that will allow our clients to achieve their educational goals, and, at the same time, be present for their families. 

Our distance learning model allows students the flexibility of working on achieving their educational goals while still allowing them to navigate life. St. Mary’s provides resources like case management and access to clinical social workers, as well as one-to-one support. These are just a few instances of how we were able to ensure our students felt supported and motivated to keep pushing forward. 

My advice for students looking for a distance learning program is to look for programs that can meet their individual needs. 

3 ways St. Mary’s Center adapted to the Pandemic.

Although there are many factors that contribute to St. Mary’s residents’ success online, here are three key aspects that contributed significantly: 

1. Access to technology 

One thing this pandemic has taught us at St. Mary’s is that the internet and access to computers are luxury items for most households. We understand that most of our participants are lower-income and most struggle with additional expenses. With this in mind, we were able to donate laptops to most of our students through our partnership with Tech Goes Home. Tech Goes Home provides discounted chrome books for participants who have completed 15 hours of instruction on computer usage. This access to technology eased the burden that many of our students faced. Through this partnership, we were able to assure working computer skills, while providing access and instruction to all the residents of St. Mary’s. A resource that benefited entire families.  

2. One-to-One Instruction 

Taking into account that our ladies at St. Mary’s suffer from a myriad of barriers to success, our goal was to make an uncertain time as normal as possible. 

Pre-COVID we offered students one-to-one tutoring. This individualized approach allowed the staff to continue to assess skills and educational attainment and gains while keeping students on the road to program completion.  

We chose to not deviate from our “traditional” components of instruction when the pandemic broke and provided a source of consistency during these uncertain times. Dealing with individuals with significant trauma, the ability to hold on to the tried-and-true proved to be a winning attribute to our distance learning model.  

3. Wrap Around Services:  

St. Mary’s recognized that the pandemic created additional barriers and trauma for our women. We decided to provide resources weekly for our women that ranged from clothing, housing, and how to cope during COVID. 

Mental and emotional health is a key component in success for anyone, regardless of their station in life. To assure our student’s success online, we knew we needed to assist in other aspects of their lives as well. Providing access to clinical social workers and a weekly updated resource list, we strived to best meet the personal needs of our students. We also had individualized check-ins with students, either through a call or email. By enforcing our holistic approach, our students knew that staff was genuinely invested in their education, emotional and mental well-being.  

Additional keys to St. Mary’s success during the pandemic.  

Our students’ success during the COVID-19 pandemic is due to St. Mary’s staying true to our teaching model. We didn’t deviate from our holistic approach to teaching. It is that approach that allowed our students to maneuver through the trials and tribulations of COVID-19, while St. Mary’s remained a constant source of support during uncertain times.

During these unprecedented times, we did our best to maintain a sense of normalcy. This approach contributed greatly to our student’s ability to continue their instruction and I hope it can help you as well. 

Here are some highlights of our approach: 

  • We encouraged our students to allow their children to be a part of the learning process.  
  • We didn’t pretend that we weren’t in a pandemic, rather we acknowledged that this was a trying time and allowed our students to parent while receiving their instruction.  
  • We adjusted class start times and recorded sessions. Student’s had access to the virtual classroom content if they were unable to attend class that day. 
  • We also encouraged familial learning. More often than not, our student’s children were in the background, paying attention to what was happening on the computer screen or doing their own school work. By doing this we seemingly added a sense of calm, during a tumultuous time.     

Segueing into a successful distance learning program wasn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel. It was, simply, a matter of taking the best parts of our program, and putting those nuisances’ front and center of our distance learning structure. St. Mary’s maintenance of its holistic approach ensured that our ladies felt supported during their educational journeys. Our approach is different because we focus on the emotional well-being of the students. We acknowledged that one entity could not exist without the other. Impactful teaching and learning can’t happen if students are in a constant state of distress. 

As we continue to navigate through these uncertain times, the Workforce Development & Learning Resource Center at St. Mary’s will continue to provide quality instruction by focusing on the emotional well-being of our students. Also, we will continue to be innovative and work with online learning tools like Edgenuity and will continue to partner with Tech Goes Home to ensure that all our participants have access to discounted laptops and the internet.  

Our Diamonds of Dorchester Virtual Gala, October 27th, 2020, fundraising efforts directly support the women we serve as they continue their online educational journeys. As you can see, St. Mary’s serves these women in education, but with a wrap-around approach.  

You can be a part of this unique approach to online education by registering for our free virtual gala or by becoming a sponsor.  

To Register, click here.

 

For more information on becoming a sponsor, contact Alexis Steel, COO, St. Mary’s Center at: asteel@stmaryscenterma.org or 617-436-8600

Lakeisha Franklin 

LaKeisha Franklin is the current Director of Workforce Development & Learning Resource Center at St. Mary’s. Having previously worked at the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, LaKeisha has her finger on the pulse of trends and what employers are seeking in an ever changing economy. She aligns the programmatic goals of the Workforce Development & Learning Resource Center to meet those needs. 

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