It’s mid-morning Tuesday and 70 or so kids are hunched in front of their computers inside the cafeteria and gymnasium at Cactus Canyon Junior High School.
The kindergarten and first-grade students, all wearing masks, are socially distanced inside the cafeteria. Next door, on the gym floor, about 30 second-to-fifth grade students are in the middle of their studies, their desks at least six feet apart.
It’s remarkably quiet, given the age of the kids — particularly the younger ones — and the chaos that could ensue. A young female student raises her hand and almost immediately a teacher wanders over to see what she needs.
Welcome to the Learning Lab, a place for students whose parents for whatever reason can not be at home with them while the Apache Junction Unified School District continues in its online learning model. AJUSD will return to in-person learning on March 22.
The lab was created as the result of an executive order by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who wanted to provide a safe environment to students who might need additional support.
“The lab has been a very positive experience for those students who are in attendance,” said Heather Wallace, AJUSD’s executive director of educational services. “There is a lot of supervision and support, students are given breakfast and lunch and we have had attendance of 50 or more students since the first day it opened. There also has been little to no disruption from behavior.”
Jim Graham, the lead facilitator in the lab, said on a typical day between 70 to 80 kids show up. Eighteen staff members are on hand, including two to three nurses. In addition to their studies, the students get recess periods twice a day.
“It gives them an opportunity to have a safe place to learn,” Mr. Graham said. “It’s as close to school as you can get without being officially at school.”
Shawna James has five kids in the program, a third grader, two first graders and two kindergarten students. A stay-at-home mom, Ms. James tried at first to manage having five small children learning from home. But she couldn’t help them all out and, “was in tears and frustrated daily. I just didn’t have enough places for them to be separate and for them to keep quiet.”
Making matters more difficult: One of Ms. James’ kids is on an Individualized Education Plan. Also, she said, her kids are adopted and have “more emotional issues.”
The Learning Lab has been a godsend.
“I am thankful for this program,” Ms. James said. “My kids are happier and I am happier.”
Ms. Wallace said several parents have reached out to her to say thank you.
“They appreciate that there is some place for their children to be,” Ms. Wallace said. “I think the kids miss being in school but they seem to enjoy being able to be at the lab each day.”
Editor’s note: Scott Bordow is the director of communications and community engagement for Apache Junction Unified School District.