The Mississippi Children’s Museum welcomed students in need of a safe space where they could tackle virtual learning during the fall semester after closing its doors earlier in the year because of COVID-19.
The museum’s Launch into Learning initiative provided access to high speed internet as well as computers and tablets so that on school days Jackson elementary school students could complete remote learning assignments at the museum.
On the weekends, the museum shifted gears and opened its galleries filled with educational, interactive exhibits to visitors.
Museum staff began to consider how they could use their expertise and make use of the museum’s facilities after Jackson public schools announced a shift for the fall semester to online classes, said Susan Garrard, president/CEO of the 10-year-old museum that is located at 2145 Museum Blvd.
The staff realized the museum’s 40,000 square feet of space that is equipped with high-speed internet access would lend itself as a location for students to continue their education virtually and that the museum’s staff of educators could assist, she said.
“We have some of the best education staff in the state and knew that we could lean into that,” she said. During the pandemic, staff members created printed and online materials for parents and educators statewide to use.
Several parents, whose jobs were deemed essential, asked about forming a “pod” so they could drop off their children at the museum and with supervision their children could continue their education remotely during the school day, Garrard said. Several nonprofits contacted the museum with similar requests, Garrard said.
The Launch into Learning initiative had 104 students from 12 Jackson public schools participate during the fall semester, Garrard said. The initiative included a day camp, an after-school program and all-day program for elementary students.
Brooke Floyd, director of the children’s program at Stewpot Community Services, said Launch into Learning was a godsend.
The museum’s large space allowed all 29 students enrolled in Stewpot’s day camp to be accommodated, something it could not otherwise do at its own facilities because of social distancing requirements, she said.
“We had access to consistent internet service, which was much needed,” Floyd said. Also helpful was assistance was available should a student’s electronic device prove problematic and the museum’s staff members plus some retired teachers and college students stepped in to offer one-on-one assistance and tutoring.
Garrard said the museum followed all safety guidelines in regard to the coronavirus and divided students into groups, “pods,” based on their grade level. There were no more than 50 students in the museum at a time in order to provide a safe experience, she said.
“They had a designated teacher and students stayed in their pod groups in certain sections of the museum,” she said. “They practiced social distancing and other safety guidelines.”
The initiative not only met a need for working parents to keep their children safe but allowed youngsters to keep up with their education in a fun atmosphere where they received extra help with school work if needed, a chef created breakfast and lunch, healthy snacks were provided and enriching activities such as gardening and art class offered, Floyd said.
“It’s every kid’s dream to have school at the Children’s Museum,” she said. “It not only returned them to a sense of normalcy when things are so crazy but it allowed them to get away from the madness and focus on being kids.”
Floyd commended employees at the museum for securing funding for the initiative and pivoting to make Launch into Learning reality. “They hit the ground running,” she said.
Ginger Cook said Launch into Learning has been a lifeline for her family.
“We made the decision to stay home with our kids for remote learning and the program at the Mississippi Children’s Museum provides a much-needed break for us in our day and a time for our kids to socialize with other kids experiencing the same thing,” she said. “The staff is superb, always quick to communicate with parents and create engaging activities for children.”
Cook said her children would return home happier after having had time to play, run and learn. “This experience has deepened our relationship with the museum, and I know that our kids will have a deeper attachment as well,” she said.
Kim Wade called the Launch into Learning program “amazing” and said her children benefitted so much from it that she plans for them to participate in the after-school program during the spring semester.
Garrard, who is an ex-officio board member of the Association of Childrens Museums, said about half of the children’s museums in the country have closed their doors during the pandemic in the interest of public safety, given that the experience they offer is hands on.
“A couple that I know of have done something similar to this,” she said, referring to Launch into Learning. “We’re fortunate in Mississippi in that we know each other, can pick up the phone and say, ‘Let’s try this.”’
Launch into Learning’s school day program ended on Dec. 18, but the after-school program and tutoring program will be offered in the new year, Garrard said. Students enrolled in Jackson public schools are scheduled to return to in-person classes on Jan. 19, 2021.