Museums are combining childcare and education that's more affordable than private tutoring

Parents whose jobs don't allow them to watch over their kids' remote learning could turn to museums for help

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published October 16, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

Children play in a large mirrored object at the Science Museum on it's official re-opening day on August 19, 2020 in London, England. The Science Museum reopens its doors to the public today, nearly five months after the Coronavirus pandemic shut down all public spaces. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Children play in a large mirrored object at the Science Museum on it's official re-opening day on August 19, 2020 in London, England. The Science Museum reopens its doors to the public today, nearly five months after the Coronavirus pandemic shut down all public spaces. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

As early as March of this year, many parents realized that their children likely would not physically attend school for the fall semester due to the pandemic. This led to a mad scramble to make other arrangements. 

Some parents opted for "pandemic pods," which are essentially groups of 10 or fewer students learning together in a home environment with mutually agreed upon health precautions being taken outside the classroom. Some turned to websites like Selected for Families and Schoolhouse, professional services that match families with tutors. Others simply waited for guidance from their local school district, many of which held off to make determinations about plans for the upcoming school year as they tracked local cases of the novel coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, cultural and community organizations across the country — like museums, recreation centers, and history archives — spent the summer temporarily closed to the public. Many have since reopened by adding online learning assistance and in-person programs to their list of services, which while not accessible to every student, has become a financial lifeline for working parents and the institutions themselves. 

For many parents, this is a joint childcare and schooling solution

The Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville, Ky., launched their NTI — or non-traditional instruction — from the Frazier program on Aug. 31. It's an all-day program with workstations for students in second through ninth grades. While the students each follow their own school curriculum, museum educators are on hand to help answer questions, assist with technology, and host end-of-day activities in the galleries. 

Mick Sullivan, the manager of youth and family programs at the Frazier, says that the program averages about 10 students, each of whom are required to bring their own mask, laptop or other device, headphones with microphone, school supplies, and lunch. 

The museum is following state-mandated sanitation requirements and pandemic precautions. 

"When people come in, they're getting their temperatures checked," Sullivan said. "We're doing hand washing and sanitation. Everybody has their own workspace with well over 15 square feet around them. Everyone also has their own specific sets of curriculum, so there is no sharing of materials." 

Finding this kind of all-day childcare with qualified educators has been top of mind for many parents since the summer. According to an August Washington Post-Schar School nationwide poll, 50% of working parents said it would be "harder" or "impossible" to do their jobs if their children's schools provided only online instruction this fall, while 50% said it would have no effect.

"I talk to the students' parents every day, and the people that are making use of our offerings, they're people who work downtown," Sullivan said. "This is a convenient solution where they know their kids are safe, they are getting the support that they need, while they can be at work."

NTI from the Frazier costs $250 per week for non-members and $200 for members; in contrast, according to a recent Vox report, private tutoring can range anywhere from $25 to $75 an hour, while the cost of "pods" is split among the parents of participating students. 

Other museums in the state — like the Kentucky Science Center and the Explorium of Lexington — have launched similar programs, as have YMCA branches across the country. 

In Ann Arbor, Mich., the local YMCA branch launched an all-day Learning Center for students in kindergarten through third grade. Like the Frazier program, students operate in 10-person pods. Per the course description, "program curriculum includes, but is not limited to, welcoming and relationship building activities, mindfulness moments, get-up-and-move exercises, outdoor adventures, snack time, and light academic support. Participants must be registered in a virtual school curriculum with a synchronized classroom." 

The cost for students is $220 per week for a five-day option and $90 per week for a two-day option. There are also scholarships available for students. 

"We've heard from so many working parents throughout the COVID crisis that when they have to go work on site, they need a place for their children to be with adult supervision and learning opportunities," says Toni Kayumi, executive director of the Ann Arbor YMCA, told Second Wave Media. "In preschool, they knew to budget for [child care]. But pre-COVID, parents didn't have to think about full-day child care for school-aged children, and that's an additional expenditure that was not in the family budget."

The benefits and barriers of going digital

For many community institutions, the pandemic has also highlighted the benefits — and barriers — to going digital with some of their educational programming. The Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C., is there to help. 

In 2018, the IMLS launched the Museums for Digital Learning program, a special initiative focused on building  museums' capacity to connect with teachers and students by "bring[ing] together museums of various disciplines, sizes, and geographic regions to contribute to a shared digital platform offering collections-based educational resource kits." The program was piloted with the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields in Indianapolis, the Field Museum in Chicago and History Colorado. 

On Oct. 8, the organization announced it would be expanding the reach of the program by bringing on 10 additional museums and cultural centers, including the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, the RISD Museum at Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Wyoming Geological Museum. 

"One of the goals is building the digital capacity of museums of all types, all disciplines," said Paula Gangopadhyay, the IMLS deputy director at the office of museum services. " Whether it's a zoo, aquarium, children's museum, history museum — small, medium or large. The goal is also to meet the needs of the K through 12 sector, because we find that teachers are always looking for authentic, curated and engaging digital resources." 

She continued: "We found, even just through the analysis of the grants that we are giving out, that there is a pretty big divide between large museums that have the resources to offer digital offerings, and the small- and medium-sized museums that have great resources, but they just don't have the bandwidth to translate those into educational resources." 

Gangopadhyay said the interest in the Museums for Digital Learning program has increased so sharply since the beginning of the pandemic, the organization is eyeing a second round of expansion. 

"As soon as the press release [announcing the ten museum expansion] went out, 14 more reached out to say, 'When can we join? We are ready. When are your onboarding demos?'" she said. 

These new opportunities for museums highlight both systemic inequities and necessary lifelines

As with any educational opportunity, some students are bound to get left behind due to systemic inequities. As I reported in July, some education equality advocates were concerned that inherent to the "pay to pod" structure, as well as digital learning, as a whole, is the potential for vulnerable students being left behind. 

Dr. David Stovall, — professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the intersection of race, place and school — pointed out that many parents did not have the resources to pay for a private pod instructor, and that digital learning may be inaccessible to some of the country's most vulnerable students.

"I'm also really concerned about it because here in Chicago, what we noticed from March to June is that 60% of CPS [Chicago Public School] students never logged in for digital learning," Stovall said. "And then the other part of that is that, even before COVID, 60% of CPS students' access to internet service was actually done via phone." 

Using those statistics as a baseline, is it likely that those students are going to be the ones benefiting from museums' new digital collections and all-day educational opportunities? Probably not. However, those same opportunities are a thin lifeline for our nation's cultural and community institutions. 

According to a July report from the American Alliance of Museums, one-third of museum directors were not confident about their museums' survival over the next 16 months without additional financial relief. And 17%  said they didn't know if their museums could survive that long without relief, while 16% believe their museums face significant risk of closing permanently in that time without relief.

When we spoke in July, Dr. Stovall said that now was the time for districts to realize that the inequities facing their students could no longer be concealed behind schoolhouse walls. "This is really that moment where we have to really come to grips with some of the structural inequities that are now exacerbated because now we don't even have the semblance normalcy," he said. 

This school year also offers communities an opportunity to assess the ways in which local institutions are stepping up to enrich the lives of students during an unprecedented school year — and perhaps consider how those contributions could be consistently expanded for the students who need it most.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Childcare Digital Learning Education Home Schooling Museums Pandemic Pods Reporting