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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tazarrius Hughley, 7, works on school work at First Baptist Church in Chattanooga on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

A little over 15,000, or about one-third, of Hamilton County Schools' 45,000 students opted to participate in some form of remote learning this semester, according to Hamilton County Schools Family & Community Engagement Coordinator Kate Skonberg.

Many of those students learning from home during the coronavirus pandemic are doing so alone and with little support and few resources available.

To help support them and provide a safe, supervised environment for learning, community organizations are working together to establish virtual learning centers at 15 urban churches affiliated with Kingdom Partners.

Kingdom Partners' mission is to improve access to resources for Chattanooga's urban churches and faith-based organizations in order to help them transform their communities, according to its website.

"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," said the Rev. William Terry Ladd, pastor at First Baptist Church on East Eighth Street, a trailblazer in the effort to establish virtual learning centers at Chattanooga's urban churches.

New to this type of programming, Ladd formed relationships with community partners, as well as relying on Kingdom Partners and other local organizations for resources to make the center possible. For example, Hamilton County Schools provides meals and snacks for the students, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students are staffing the center and Silverdale Baptist Church donated cleaning supplies.

Opened Oct. 12, the center at First Baptist is one of four church-based virtual learning centers already in operation. It serves 12 students in kindergarten through sixth grade who are zoned for Brown Academy, which is located near the church and has a significant number of homeless students.

"Having a stable place where they can come every day, where they can eat, where they can be stable is very important for them," Ladd said.

Students maintain social distance and their temperatures are checked at the door every morning, he said.

Courtney Fugatt, site director and former Hamilton County teacher, connects kids with their teachers, listens in on lessons and helps students figure out software programs used for virtual learning such as Google Classroom — which she said has been one of the biggest struggles for students as they adjust to the program.

"When we started there was a huge disconnect between students and how to submit their work and where to submit it," she said.

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Virtual learning centers

The Enterprise Center's Tech Goes Home program is helping to ease those technical woes for urban churches establishing virtual learning centers through a $25,000 grant from the Rotary Club of Chattanooga. Tech Goes Home is providing software training for the centers' staff, as well as hot spots for churches without internet connectivity.

"We've found students really need some remedial coaching in their environment," said Casey Miller, who's leading the virtual learning center effort for Tech Goes Home.

Funding is the biggest challenge in operating the virtual learning centers, Ladd said. The cost to clean several times a week and pay the teachers $15 an hour adds up to $2,500 per student, or $35,000 overall, per semester.

Hosted in a building connected to the church, the First Baptist virtual learning center is the first outreach effort of First Baptist Cares, a nonprofit organization the church formed in 2018. Its nonprofit status allows First Baptist Cares to apply for and receive grants to fund the virtual learning program, Ladd said. The First Baptist program is funded for the fall semester, but needs to raise more money to continue in 2021.

Soon, church and faith-based organizations that have signed an agreement with Hamilton County Schools as a virtual learning center partner will be able to apply to receive micro-grants to cover non-budgeted expenses they incur by extending their hours to provide support to families.

Funded through the Hamilton County Schools Foundation Faith-Based Partnership Fund at The Generosity Trust, a local organization that promotes Christian charitable giving, the grants can be used for extra utility costs, additional wages for support staff and technology upgrades partially funded by local foundations, Skonberg said.

Around 8,000 students in Hamilton County are in need of the services virtual learning centers provide, Ladd said. Since space is limited to allow for social distancing, First Baptist has already had to turn kids away and now has 10 students on its waiting list.

"We get calls and emails every day," he said.

Hamilton County now has 18 HCS at Home virtual learning centers operating five days a week, as well as 13 hybrid virtual learning centers serving students who chose to do both in-person and virtual learning. Both of those types of virtual learning centers are partnered with a physical school nearby where students either physically attend class part time or participate virtually with support from their classroom teacher, Skonberg said.

Hamilton County Schools also has 10 educational well-check partners that check on students whose families opted for Hamilton County Virtual School, in which students learn solely at home with no connection to a physical school location.

Most of the existing virtual learning centers were established through community partners at locations including the city of Chattanooga's Youth and Family Development centers and local YMCAs.

The Kingdom Partners virtual learning centers are set to open between October and January. Several were set to open Oct. 20, and 10 are aiming for mid-November start dates, said Casey Miller, community partnerships director for Tech Goes Home.

Families interested in enrolling their students in a virtual learning center should visit hcde.org/vlc for more information and instructions on how to enroll through PowerSchool.

Community members interested in donating funds to support the grants for churches operating virtual learning centers may visit tinyurl.com/DonatetoGenerosityTrust to donate, selecting "Community Virtual Learning Centers" to designate the gift. For more information call The Generosity Trust at 423-266-5257.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @emcrisman.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com.

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