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Pandemic Perseverance: A safe learning space for Slavic Village students

Constance Dunson and Sharon Irby helped serve at least 50 children in a learning pod when schools closed. [Sharon Irby]
Children from the learning pod pose in their classroom with Constance Dunson and Sharon Irby, who helped serve at least 50 children when schools closed. [Sharon Irby]

Children in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District are back in the classroom after the COVID-19 pandemic caused most of the last school year to be conducted online. The return to school meant the end of an initative to provide a safe and connected space for children in Slavic Village to learn remotely. The 'learning pod" project was spearheaded by two neighborhood women.

Constance Dunson and Sharon Irby say they served at least 50 children during the height of the pandemic, providing them a place to go when schools were closed and home was not a good alterative for learning. They shared their memories while the pod was still in operation as part of Ideastream Public Media's Pandemic Persistence series. 

Students attend online class in the Community of Faith Assembly learning pod. [Sharon Irby]

Starting a learning pod

Dunson: My name is Constance Dunson. The kids call me Miss Ann. We are at the Community of Faith Assembly, one of CMSD's academic learning pods.

Irby: My name is Sharon Irby. The key is pretty much call me Miss Irby. I first met Miss Ann actually, she was my fifth grade teacher when I was at Wade Park Elementary. (Laughs)

Dunson: We both belong to the same church. 

Irby: Yes. Bishop Minor needed Miss Ann to run the learning pod, and I ended up here. I don't even know how I ended up helping run. It's not what I was told in the beginning. (Laughs)

Dunson: Right, nine weeks, right?

Irby: Nine weeks that we were supposed to be doing this. 

Dunson: And we're on the week number 31. (Laughs) It's good. It's good.

Challenges of remote learning

Irby: It is. To be honest, it's been challenging. But it was also good because during the pandemic, I got to help somebody else and not just be locked up in my house when I was able to help other parents who had to go out and couldn't help their kid. What, we had 27, 28 kids? We had a chance to invest in them. Now every day wasn't fun. And a lot of days were creative. (Laughs)

Dunson: We've had at least about close to 50 kids that have come and gone within the learning pod. But even before the district came up with the learning pod and they were deciding to close the school district, I was talking to my husband. I was like, "Hey, I just gotta do something to help the kids," even if it's like just bringing them into the house and putting them in the basement, at least four or five kids. And then next thing I knew they were talking about the learning pod. And I'm like, "Oh okay, they stole my idea.'"(Laughs) One of my favorite days was, you know what I'm going to say, the w inauguration, where we had the kids learning about the government. We got a chance to see the first female vice president, African-American. We even bought the girls pearls and they wore pearls that day. And it was it was a fun day for us.

Students in the learning pod wear pearls to watch the 2021 Presidential Inauguration. [Sharon Irby]

Keeping the students safe

Irby: Yeah, but one of the memories, to be honest, that I think of because of what we've been through creating the pod. We thank God we have never had a COVID-19 experience with the kids, with the staff. Everyone has stayed COVID safe.

Dunson: Because your motto was always what?

Irby: I didn't leave here with nothing I didn't come with. (Laughs) I didn't come here with no runny nose, I didn't come here with COVID. I'm not leaving here. Put your mask on. Wash your hands. Another thing was we watched this learning pod here transform them completely as far as reading, their academics. What made this good, it didn't feel like it was just a school or somewhere to learn. We made it comfortable and we made it safe. To some degree, we might not have probably made it through the pandemic as sanely as we would have, without the learning pod. I know I wouldn't.

Dunson: Mmhmm.


Reporting for this project was done by freelance reporter Rachel Dissell with aid from Nicole Abraham, Pamela Shelley, Michael Heuer and Sharon Irby, whom you heard in this piece. It was edited and produced by Ideastream Coordinating Producer Rachel Rood.

Rachel is the supervising producer for Ideastream Public Media’s morning public affairs show, the “Sound of Ideas.”