Lights, camera, fraction! What it’s like to do school at a movie theater

ESSEX – Have you ever wanted to spend all day at the movie theater? Some lucky Essex students get to have school at one.

Essex Cinemas welcomes students five days a week, ticket free, to use the facility during the children’s remote learning days. The movie theater is a child care hub site, a program established by the state to provide care to students on non-in-person school days.

The Essex-Westford School District, which began the school year in a hybrid model with some in-person and some remote school days each week, partnered with Essex Junction Recreation & Parks to provide a solution for families with working parents.

The free program, RecKids, serves 798 students in the district across 14 locations, one of which is Essex Cinemas. 

Niall McMahon, a Rec Kids staff member, helps Brady W. with his school work at Essex Cinemas, on Sept. 25, 2020. The movie theater has allowed Essex Westford School District students to use the facility for remote learning days.

The kids placed to attend the movie theater site, based on their geographical location, have been over the moon to go there as many as three days a week.

“Just the novelty of going to the movie theater was very enticing,” said Maureen Gillard, school age child care director for Essex Junction Recreation & Parks.

More:Child care and remote learning: How Vermont plans to fill the gaps

Getting schooled at the movie theater

Students are enjoying the atmosphere, engaging in learning and the seating.

“It’s not at school, it’s at a movie theater. And also, it’s very comfy chairs,” said seven year old Alex M., who attends the program Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The second grader is able to watch videos — not YouTube, he clarified — on his laptop and also complete his second grade school work. Essex Junction Recreation & Parks, which allowed the Free Press access into the movie theater, has a policy of not providing full last names for children.

Alex said staff are available to help with school or technical issues. “Whatever you’re doing and you need help, then they help. And you ask them.” 

Each student has a different schedule for being on class video calls, so at any one moment there are several students sprinkled among the stadium seating with headphones on while they engage in remote learning. Others have math activity worksheets spread out on the open floor space in the area between the first row of seats and the massive screen, which most of the time goes virtually unnoticed. Other students read a book or are typing away, completing assignments on their computer. 

Each movie theater is assigned to a grade level, which keeps the groups aligned age-wise and academically, as well as separated into cohorts to prevent viral transmission across groups.

Lydia S., a seventh grader who enjoys hanging out with friends she doesn’t get to see at school, said the hub model allows her a more flexible approach to her studies.

“I can do it my way. I can listen to music while I do my work. It’s just more chill, I have comfier seats. I like it a lot,” she said.

Eighth grader Omar K. has found he gets more school work done.

“It’s definitely more productive than at home because you can be more focused here. I usually get more work done here than back in the spring when I was just sitting at home.” 

He said it is more monitored which keeps him on task. Omar found the movie theater’s unique building design a help to his straw airplane engineering project.

“Right now I’m doing a lab that involves building and testing,” he said. “Right here it is actually easier because there’s more space to do it.”

He built his airplane out of plastic drinking straws and launched it from the uppermost row of the stadium seating, over the side of the arm rail to the floor below. With such a long distance to fall, Omar was able to easily assess how to improve his project.

“We’re testing to see how far we can build ours to go,” he said. “Like what’s the max we can get it to.”

More:A new school experience: inside Essex Westford’s Virtual Academy

A group of students burn off energy playing football in the green space next to Essex Cinemas, Sept. 25, 2020. The Essex Westford students get to do remote learning from the movie theater up to three days a week while in the hybrid learning model during the pandemic.

Enrichment and exercise

At Essex Cinemas, the daily schedule allows for more than just schoolwork. And, yes, there is the opportunity to take in a flick from time to time.

Alex said he got to watch the movie “Up” the previous week. But, there are other advantages to the location. 

“We sometimes get to watch movies and ride your bike and scooters,” he said.

The green space outside the theater is one place where students can be seen playing football and mingling. A basketball hoop has been positioned in the parking lot which is coned off, allowing kids to bicycle and skateboard with whatever wheeled implement they brought from home. 

Myers Park is also a short walk away and give the kids another outdoor location to explore.

In addition to outside time, tables are also set up with enrichment activities such as art.

In some ways, the experience is superior to the in-person school days, according to Lydia. “We get to hang out more, get more time with our masks off. More time to eat.”

No, movie popcorn is not on the menu; however, lunches and snacks are provided free by the program.

More:Essex teens may have the solution to Halloween night trick-or-treating during the pandemic

Marching off in line like a stormtrooper, a first grader contemplates The Empire Strikes Back movie poster on the way back to his classroom/theater at Essex Cinemas on Sept. 25, 2020.

Rec Kids program serves hundreds for free

Gillard, the program’s director has said it’s been a wild ride from conception to implementation. “The thing I love about working for EJRP (Essex Junction Recreation & Parks) is not if, but how to address an unmet community need.”

The RecKids program was one of the first in the area to announce a solution for students in the hybrid model who needed somewhere to go on remote learning days. And, unlike most others, the program was offered as a free service to families in the school district.

Wednesdays, when schools are closed, have the highest occupancy — 613 kids are in hub sites across the fourteen locations. Churches and community centers also house hubs. 

Gillard has been very pleased with their partnership with Essex Cinemas, who she said was immediately “on board to be part of a creative solution.”

At 3 p.m. each day, the students are dismissed and the facility and theaters get cleaned, fogged and disinfected, ready for evening showings. Kids participating in the afterschool program, which is offered for a fee, are bussed to another location.

Many of the RecKids staff have worked in afterschool and summer programs through Essex Junction Recreation & Parks, but a lot more staff needed to be hired. About 60% of the workers are college students, many elementary education majors from St. Michael’s College and the University of Vermont. Gillard has been tasked with the complexities of scheduling around her workers’ own schooling, keeping 10 to 15 workers rotating in and out throughout the day at Essex Cinemas. 

“They have been thrown into this crazy world. To say they have risen to the challenge is an understatement,” Gillard said of her staff, who not only watch the kids but also design science experiments and enrichment activities and aid with schoolwork. 

It’s “teamwork like nothing I’ve experienced,” she said.

More:Essex has worked out a free child care solution for students on remote learning days

A girl gets a front row view of independent reading time Sept. 25, 2020. The student completes school work at Essex Cinemas, as part of the Essex Junction Recreation & Parks learning hub program offered to students during their remote learning days.

Temporary fix

The program was designed to meet an acute need but to be phased out whenever the situation changed. Already the program has lost many of its students since Oct. 5, when the Essex-Westford school district welcomed back pre-K through fifth graders for full-time, in-person instruction. 

The middle school students will likely still take part in the hub program, but it is also a model that can be deployed if needed again.

For those lucky few who got to go to school at the movie theater, it will not soon be forgotten.

Alex said, “Last year I didn’t get to the cinema cause every day I had school, but this year I have the cinema.”

“I feel very fortunate to be part of a community that is showing up for kids and families however we can,” Gillard said.

More:First day of school for Vermont students means masks, temperature checks, remote learning

Contact April Barton at abarton@freepressmedia.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

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