MARION COUNTY, Fla. – We’ve heard about learning pods when groups of families come together to pay an instructor. A group in Marion County is forming their own education pods called Virtual Learning Camps, or VLCs. Unlike the pods, VLCs are free and the students learn online through the Marion County Public School system.
“If you’re going to voice the problem, be part of the solution,” said Pastor James Stockton III.
Stockton is a pastor and president of the Marion County chapter of the NAACP. He has a daughter in High School and like many parents, has concerns about social distancing and safety in brick-and-mortar schools during the pandemic.
He said the county’s NAACP education committee brought up concerns over students who were enrolled in online instruction who may be at home alone or in need of some support. That’s when the group came up with the Virtual Learning Camp model.
When Stockton heard about the idea of Virtual Learning Camps, he offered up the Greater New Hope church in Silver Springs Shores as a campsite.
“Whatever they’re accepting under CDC guidelines, we’re doing at least that and maybe more,” said Stockton.
Their protocols include daily temperature checks and logging every child and volunteer that walks through the door. Masks are required and each station is sanitized throughout the day.
Every VLC provides breakfast and lunch for the students. Each site only allows for 20-25 students to ensure they remain socially distant. Site Coordinator Deneen Myers said volunteers don’t teach the kids, but offer encouragement, support, and supervision like they would get in the classroom.
“We’re monitoring the kids to make sure they’re staying focused in a safe environment being monitored by adults. While the parents are comfortable going to work to provide for their families,” said Myers.
The service comes at no cost to parents. Meals and PPE are funded through donations and the church.
“We’ve made this part of our budget. Our community needs it... One of the hardest parts is making sure we have enough volunteer coverage for our young people,” said Stockton. “The church has taken this on as part of their outreach to the community. We’re not preaching to the kids or making them see songs, but we are being a safe haven.”
Stockton said the VLCs are working with the Florida Department of Health and hopes the first three VLCs will serve as a model for other community centers and churches willing to open their doors to students in need across Marion County.
“We want to try to come up with a model that could be used - worst-case scenario - if schools were to shut down again or, more importantly, give working parents a location where they can take their young person and know they’d be safe and have someone to keep their child-focused and faithful to the online program,” said Stockton.
New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala is serving as a VLC, pastored by Reverent Eric Cummings who serves as the Marion County Public School Board Chairman.
Tabernacle of Deliverance in Ocala is also part of the NAACP’s VLC model.
Stockon said there are two more VLCs opening up soon. If you want to learn more about how to enroll your child in one of the VLCs, call 352-687-1130. The VLCs are also looking for volunteers and donations to help support the students throughout the school year.