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Watts Learning Center shares why they will continue distance learning during pandemic

A’niya McDermon, a 5th grader, holding a science project she completed at home as part of her virtual learning at Watts Learn
A’niya McDermon, a 5th grader, holding a science project she completed at home as part of her virtual learning at Watts Learning Center. Credit: Watts Learning Center

In the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles region, young students have experienced the harsh realities of the COVID-19 pandemic firsthand.

“Parents have died, family members have died,” said Eugene Fisher, the board president and co-founder of the Watts Learning Center (WLC), an independent charter with elementary and middle schools.

So when school leaders surveyed the student population, it was not a surprise that they found 59 percent of parents and guardians were not comfortable with their child returning to school in small groups, even with social distancing. Many of the families have essential jobs and didn’t want to unnecessarily expose other students and families to the virus.

Unlike most schools across Los Angeles County, the Watts Learning Center campuses will remain closed for the rest of the current school year.

However, that is not stopping students from learning. Fisher said the Watts Learning Center, which serves almost 800 students, has always prided itself on creating a 21st Century learning environment.

“We had provided every student with a laptop at the Watts Learning Center before the pandemic,” Fisher said.

However, when the school switched to distance learning, every student did not have internet access. So the school provided hot spots, so students could have access to Wifi at home.

Fisher said the Watts Learning Center was founded in the mid-1990’s to fill a community void. It was designed by community stakeholders to be a school for the people of Watts.

“The underlying premise was nothing was wrong with children (of Watts)”,” Fisher said before noting it was the traditional education system that was not serving Black and Brown students.

As a South LA charter school, the Watts Learning Center has always taken a different approach.

When surveyed, 76.9 percent of the WLC student population said they preferred online learning for safety reasons. Nearly 66 percent of parents and guardians said they felt distance learning worked well for their child and their family and 91.3 percent said their child had support at home with online learning.

Fisher said those survey results, combined with the perspective of teachers and administrators, show that Black and Brown students can achieve when provided resources and support in a caring, virtual learning environment.

With the traditional school year scheduled to end in a matter of weeks, WLC teachers and families also agreed that changing students’ routine back to in-person learning this spring would cause disruptions. It could also potentially lead to learning loss, as students are finally adjusted to distance learning.

“The pandemic has thrown everyone into a learning mode,” Fisher said.

For a school that began with three students 24 years ago, to have grown to 800 students across K-8 is a testament to the community partnerships it takes to cultivate a learning community, Fisher noted.

However, in-person learning remains the best long-term option because of the extracurricular activities like field trips that include camping and other cultural experiences.

With that in mind, the Watts Learning Center is planning to offer an in-person summer school option for students who have been severely affected by learning loss during the pandemic. And the WLC is planning to offer in-person learning in the fall.