Like many others, those offering essential learning programs have experienced major service-delivery changes thanks to COVID-19.
And while virtual learning became an integral tool for elementary and high schools following their closures in March, the same isn’t always true for organizations trying to help people acquire rudimentary learning skills.
“The majority of my learners are not technical enough to do it by email,” Gateway Centre for Learning executive director Jennifer Ellis said, noting that many don’t have computers or the internet and some aren’t particularly interested in technology.
During a visit to Gateway's Midland office Thursday afternoon, Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop heard first-hand from those delivering basic learning skills to residents across the region through provincial initiatives.
Dunlop met with representatives from three such organizations to congratulate them on their continued funding through the province’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development and hear how they’re coping “during these trying times.”
“I want to show my appreciation for the programs you offer,” she said, noting the agencies offer an important tool to North Simcoe residents seeking basic learning skills to try to land a job.
“I was excited to hear from everyone how you will continue when you reopen. I know that people in Simcoe North need support to help recover from the pandemic.”
Under the provincial funding formula announced earlier this year, La Clé D'La Baie En Huronie will get $272,000, Gateway $126,000, Orillia & District Literacy Council $115,000 and the Simcoe/Muskoka Literacy Network $97,000.
Orillia & District Literacy Council program manager Cathy Graham said work is now underway to gradually reopen.
“We’re moving along,” Graham said, noting books and furniture have been moved to install protective barriers. “We have our pandemic plan in place and are working on implementing it right now.”
La Clé, meanwhile, has two offices in Penetanguishene and one in Barrie.
“We’re not sure if we are going to the office anytime soon, said Chanel Henne, La Clé’s adult learning coordinator, adding there was a lot of trial and error when programs moved from an in-person to virtual model following the office closures in March.
“But we’ve managed to keep all of our students and increased our group conversations.”
Added Ellis: “I don’t think my board of directors will ever meet face to face again. I think Zoom is going to be the norm now.”
Ellis said organizations could also find themselves in a volunteer crunch once things get back up and running.
“In January, we had 80 regular volunteers,” she said. “We have 14 now and seven of them are board members. The number of tutors we have has gone from 45 to five.
“I’m not sure how that’s going to rebound. I want to get them back before they find something else to do.”
Graham, meanwhile, said that could be the new normal for organizations like hers' since not all volunteers are interested in helping through a virtual world, but also prefer an in-person experience.
She added: “It’s not just the learners.”
Ellis said there’s also been greater challenges setting up referrals to other community supports.
“We’re doing a lot of phone calling these days,” she said, adding some Gateway clients might also face mental health, physical health, food and legal challenges and require help from other organizations. “We often used our space to allow them to make calls in private.
“The clients we serve are unemployed longer and when they are working they don’t have high-paying jobs.”