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Teen learning pods are free and have space

As the Sonoma Valley school district and Boys & Girls Club search for more space to hold distance learning pod programs for young students, they have more than enough space and are searching for teens to fill seats in their teen pod program, officials said.

“It’s kind of disappointing the number of kids coming for distance learning,” at the teen center, said Becky Jo Peterson, executive director of Teen Services Sonoma, which has merged its services with the teen programs of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley.

Peterson and Cary Snowden, executive director of Boys & Girls Club, said they’ve been told the parents of some teens are uncomfortable sending their children to a place where there are small groups, even with social distancing. Others, they said, are staying home to help with younger siblings.

Eric Gonzalez, director of teen programs for the Boys & Girls Club, said they are set up to safely distance up to 14 students, but less than half that usually show up each day. They would like to see more teens join them for the free daylong in-person program.

Because of their age, it might be assumed that they can navigate their way through a pandemic and distance learning without any support, but Peterson and Snowden want to make sure families know their services are there for those who need even a little help or an opportunity to socialize.

“This is such a pivotal time (for teens.) We don’t want them to get lost,” Snowden said.

Peterson said they’ve seen a lot of teens with younger siblings be relied on to “stay home and take care of the kid.”

The students who are attending regularly are there either because it’s difficult for them to work from home or they have poor internet connection, Gonzalez said. Teen Services boosted its internet capacity to be able to provide solid connectivity to students.

There were more technical challenges in the beginning, and staff does provide tech support to the students to help them along, but they “got the hang of it,” he said.

Staring at a computer screen for hours seems to wear down the teens, Gonzalez said, but that hasn’t affected the popularity of the leadership program. More teens show up virtually for the Keystone Club from home than are in the building.

Virtual college tours and assistance with filling out college applications are another area that hold strong in popularity, Peterson said.

The two programs “have integrated really well,” Snowden said, and they are adapting the afterschool activities, which have had to shift to abide by coronavirus safety precautions.

The culinary program, Lovin’ Oven for example, used to create and sell food, but Peterson said they can only have two kids in the kitchen at a time. Chef Paloma Apgar who runs the program, now provides food for Sonoma Overnight Support. She is working on some cooking and gardening activities to incorporate to the distance learning pod and stay-at-home students, Peterson said.

“We’re essentially adapting and accommodating on the fly,” Gonzalez said.

Sonoma Valley Unified School District is funding the K-8 distance learning pod program operated by the Boys & Girls Club, but is not providing any money for the teen operation.

“It’s a matter of priority, not a matter of exclusion,” said Bruce Abbott, associate superintendent of the district.

The district’s main focus was to get support for those of the highest need and that was the students in the lower grades, especially the K-3rd grade, he said. A first-grader, for example, who has never used a computer before needs more support than does a teenager who has been using computers for years, he said.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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