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Sometimes 8-year-old Griffith Saxe will say that he doesn’t like school.

“But, really, I love it,” he said.

Griffith is a third-grader at Teller Elementary School in Denver’s Congress Park neighborhood. His favorite subjects are P.E. and science, but what he really enjoys about going to school is making friends and the peer-to-peer learning experience.

“He’s very bright,” said his mother, Meredith Goldburg. “But he did not adapt well to virtual learning. We had a difficult time with it.”

Still, the family was not comfortable with Griffith going back to school full-time for in-person learning during the 2020-2021 academic year because of the pandemic. They researched some private schools, but decided that wasn’t a good fit for them — they wanted to continue to supporting Denver Public Schools and keep Griffith part of the Teller community.

Then they found an option that met their needs — the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center’s (JCC Denver) Shai Learning Labs.

“He seems less stressed,” said Gareth Saxe, Griffith’s dad. “As odd as it all still is (the pandemic), he’s having a much more normal school year.”

JCC Denver, 350 S. Dahlia St., opened its Shai Learning Labs on Aug. 31. The learning labs are available to students from any school district in grades kindergarten through fifth grade. They provide small-group support for students who are doing virtual learning. The students’ work is assigned by their school district, and parents still interact directly with their child’s teacher. What the learning labs do is provide a socially distanced space where the students can learn with adult supervision to ensure students are completing their assignments and following a school-like routine; as well as tutoring, homework help and tech support, if needed.

“It creates a school atmosphere for virtual learning,” said Daniel Siegel, associate director of Camp Shai at JCC Denver. “We’re not their teachers, but we’re there, helping them (the students) through all of it.”

Care providers experienced

JCC Denver is a licensed childcare provider, so the adults in the learning labs have experience working with children in the K-5 age group, Siegel said. The learning labs are being hosted through JCC Denver’s Camp Shai, which is a day camp offered for Denver-metro youths in grades kindergarten through eighth grade.

Parents of youths who attended Camp Shai had asked if JCC Denver would consider hosting a learning lab, Siegel said, because they trusted that JCC Denver would be able to provide a structured learning environment that would be safe during the pandemic.

With the learning labs, students are divided into small, separate groups of six to eight children, and the groups do not intermingle to adhere to social distancing. During virtual learning time, each student has a divider between them, similar to some office setups. These dividers serve two purposes, Siegel said. One is for social distancing, and the other is to provide a focus zone for learning. Games and recreational activities during breaks, and/or once virtual learning is completed, have been adapted to be socially distanced, Siegel said. Additionally, both the students and staff wear masks the entire time and practice frequent hand washing.

Students also stick to a schedule, like they would at in-person school, Siegel said.

“It’s hard to be in a routine when stuck at home,” he said. “This gives them routine. And the kids are super happy to be around kids their age.”

Though JCC Denver is “not the only one doing this,” Siegel said, it is one way the organization is helping to fill a need in the community. The additional responsibility for parents to navigate their children’s educational needs every day can be difficult — whether they’re working from home or away from home, Siegel said.

Additionally, JCC Denver is a nonprofit, Siegel said. The learning labs, he said, are a creative way for JCC to bring in revenue. Although Camp Shai hosted youths this summer, it was nowhere near the amount in past years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Need will determine future

Currently, Shai Learning Labs has 35 students enrolled, and there are only a few spots still available. JCC plans on operating the learning labs through this semester, and possibly next semester depending on the need, Siegel said. The organization is also exploring options to possibly open the learning labs for students who attend hybrid school, meaning part virtual and part in-person learning.

Like Griffith Saxe, Nina Visser enjoys the social aspect of school. She is an only child, and it’s important to her parents that she has interaction with other children her age. Nina, 8, is in the third grade and has attended Palmer Elementary School in Denver’s Hale neighborhood since she was in kindergarten.

“We believe strongly in public education,” said Sara Visser, Nina’s mother, adding she wanted Nina’s school get the funding for her enrollment in the 2020-2021 school year.

Nina’s father, Klaas Visser, is a pilot and is sometimes away from home for three to four days at a time. Sara Visser works part time as an aide to a Denver city councilmember. The family was able to make their schedules work to balance virtual learning last year, but there were times that Nina’s grandmother had to come over so Sara could attend a virtual meeting or a conference call.

“Grandma couldn’t help with the computer,” Nina said.

So, for the 2020-2021 school year, the Vissers looked into hiring a teacher to facilitate a learning pod for about five to eight of Nina’s classmates, but that didn’t work out, Sara Visser said.

Then, Sara Visser, who is a Denver native and grew up involved with the JCC, heard about the Shai Learning Labs.

“We knew they would do it well,” she said.

Nina enjoys seeing her teacher from Palmer every day, even though it is in a virtual format. But what’s exciting about the learning labs, she said, is that she has made two new friends.

The learning labs “are very helpful,” Nina Visser said. Although it’s not quite as good as going to school with a teacher in the classroom every day, she said, “you still learn better there (at JCC) than at home.”