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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Kenye Phillips, 10, works on school work at First Baptist Church in Chattanooga on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

When COVID-19 fears temporarily closed some schools and pushed many area students to virtual learning this fall, the local faith community stepped up to create virtual learning centers to provide access to the internet and a safe learning environment for families who might otherwise struggle.

But without proper funding, this series of centers may not be an option for children when school resumes in a week.

First Baptist Church opened its virtual learning center in October as one of four church-based centers. The church, through its nonprofit First Baptist Cares, served 12 students in kindergarten through sixth grade who are zoned for Brown Academy, which is located near the church.

The Rev. William Terry Ladd, pastor at First Baptist, said in October the center helped provide resources for students who might otherwise struggle with the virtual classroom model.

"In affluent communities, parents have teachers to do this in their homes and they have the technology. And of course in underserved communities we don't have that," Ladd said at the time.

The fall semester was a success for the 24 students enrolled in the program, Ladd said.

Students at the centers remain socially distanced and wear masks. The buildings are cleaned regularly, too, which adds to the operation costs.

The learning center model required around $52,000 to operate in the fall and the organization needs that level of funding to continue operating in the spring. Some of the funding streams have not come through. Ladd said he is concerned about being able to open in 2021.

"If we are not funded for the spring, all 24 students in our centers will face significant challenges with their virtual learning by not having supervision due to their parents working, access to WiFi, or both. These students also either live in multigenerational homes or have significant health challenges, making in-person learning impossible for most," Ladd said in an email last week.

The spring semester for Hamilton County Schools begins Jan. 6. The school district moved to the online-only learning phase at the end of the previous semester as COVID-19 cases in the community climbed to record levels.

The current level of coronavirus in Hamilton County puts the district still in its online-only phase for grades 4-12, while based on a recent restructuring of its COVID-19 plan, students in grades K-3 would be operating on a hybrid schedule.

Nearly 8,000 more students were expected to return to the classroom in the spring after doing virtual learning in the fall. Hosting school online and having to provide daycare to children rather than having them at school has stressed local parents and frustrated some teachers.

On Monday, Hamilton County Schools announced the district would report its phase schedule every Tuesday with any changes going into effect at the start of the next week.

Ladd said people can donate money to the virtual learning centers through the church's nonprofit First Baptist Cares.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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