Kids in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District are back in class after the COVID-19 pandemic caused most of the last school year online. The return to school marked the end of an initiative to provide a safe and connected space for children in the Slavic village to learn from a distance. The “learning pod” project was led by two women from the neighborhood.
Constance Dunson and Sharon Irby say they served at least 50 children during the height of the pandemic, providing them with a place to go when schools were closed and home was not a good alternative for learning. They shared their memories while the capsule was still in operation as part of Ideastream Public Media’s Pandemic Persistence series.
Students attend an online course in the Faith Community Assembly learning module. [Sharon Irby]
Start a learning module
Dunson: My name is Constance Dunson. The kids call me Miss Ann. We are at the Community of Faith Assembly, one of CMSD’s academic learning modules.
Irby: My name is Sharon Irby. The key is to call me Miss Irby. I actually met Miss Ann for the first time, she was my fifth grade teacher when I was in Wade Park Elementary School. (Laughs)
Dunson: We both belong to the same church.
Irby: Yes. Bishop Minor needed Miss Ann to lead the learning module, and I ended up here. I don’t even know how I ended up helping run. This is not what I was told at the beginning. (Laughs)
Dunson: Okay, nine weeks, right?
Irby: Nine weeks that we were supposed to be doing this.
Dunson: And we’re on week number 31. (Laughs) That’s good. It’s good.
The challenges of distance learning
Irby: He is. To be honest, it was difficult. But it was also good because during the pandemic I was able to help someone else and not just be locked in my house when I was able to help other parents who had to go out and couldn’t help their child. . What, we had 27, 28 kids? We have been fortunate to invest in them. Now every day was no fun. And many days were creative. (Laughs)
Dunson: We had at least fifty children who came and left in the learning module. But before the district even offered the learning module and decided to shut down the school district, I was talking to my husband. I was like, “Hey, I just gotta do something to help the kids,” even if it’s like bringing them into the house and putting them in the basement, at least four or five kids. And then the next thing I knew they were talking about the learning module. And I’m like “Oh okay, they stole my idea.” (Laughs). We were fortunate to see the first female vice president, African American. We even bought pearls from the girls and they wore pearls that day. And it was a fun day for us.
Students in the learning module wear beads to attend the 2021 presidential inauguration. [Sharon Irby]
Ensuring student safety
Irby: Yeah, but one of the memories, to be honest, that I think of because of what we went through making the pod. We thank God that we never had a COVID-19 experience with the children, with the staff. Everyone has stayed safe from COVID.
Dunson: Because your motto has always been what?
Irby: I didn’t leave here with anything that I didn’t come with. (Laughs) I didn’t come here without a runny nose, I didn’t come here with COVID. I’m not leaving here. Put on your mask. Wash your hands. Another thing was that we watched this learning module here completely transforming them when it comes to reading, their academics. What made it all good, I didn’t feel like it was just a school or a place to learn. We made it comfortable and we made it safe. To some extent, we probably wouldn’t have gotten through the pandemic as healthily as we would, without the learning module. I know I wouldn’t.
Reporting on this project was produced by freelance journalist Rachel Dissell with assistance from Nicole Abraham, Pamela Shelley, Michael Heuer and Sharon Irby, whom you have heard in this article. It was edited and produced by Ideastream coordinating producer Rachel Rood.