PB Post -After a makeover last year, Edna Runner Tutorial Center near Jupiter adjusts for COVID-19

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

JUPITER — 2020 was always going to be an important year for the Edna W. Runner Tutorial Center in Limestone Creek.

The after-school center planned to welcome children back to its expanded and revamped facility on Church Street this spring. But when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Palm Beach County public schools to in-person classes, the Runner Center put its plans on hold and instead dove into shifting its programming to address the chaos of education in 2020.

Like so many organizations across the county and nation, the Runner Center held its usual summer camp virtually, offering regular activities and grocery store gift cards to about 80 kids. When Palm Beach County public schools started online classes in August, the center opened its doors to about 50 students for reliable Internet and teacher supervision. And just last month, the facility finally reverted to its typical role as an after-school tutoring center for income-qualified children in the Jupiter area.

"We didn't slow down as a staff," program director Travis Conway said. "We just had to keep going, just alter our plan."

There's been a bevy of challenges that the center's 13-person staff has had to overcome.

Staff members instituted temperature checks at the front door, set up plexiglass shields between students, regularly sanitized their fleet of buses and juggled schedules during the hectic online-only phase of schooling.

"Everything had to be rethought," said Mary Kay Willson, the center's development director. She noted that the Runner Center found racially inclusive PSA-style hygiene posters for the center's diverse group of students.

Despite the difficulties, leaders said the center was set up to succeed in a few key ways. For one, Conway said, they assembled a collection of roughly 80 laptops and tablets over the past few years with help from donors.

That haul was a quantum leap for the center, Conway said. In the years before, each classroom was outfitted with just four archaic computers, he said.

For the students at the Runner Center, Conway said having reliable online access is important. Willson said the Runner Center was among those calling on the county school district to expand access to laptops and Internet during earlier stages of the pandemic.

"If this place wasn't here, honestly I think our students would not have been online at all," Conway said. "A lot of them don't have Internet access online at home. ... It's a blessing that this place exists."

Then there was the new building itself. The 1,000 square feet of indoor space added during the expansion has been crucial, Conway said.

Edna Runner, the center's namesake and executive director, said the facility might not have been able to operate otherwise.

"We didn't have to look for space," Runner said. "It was just meant to be."

Difficulties remain. The center still seeks to raise another $300,000 tied to its roughly $2 million capital campaign for the expanded facility.

As of last week, the center's small army of volunteers, many of whom are retired, had yet to return alongside the students, but a Zoom alternative is in the works. Staff members are still helping out students continuing with distance learning to protect at-risk family members, Runner said.

But when the students returned, Conway said the payoff was clear. They were thrilled to be back, he said. Right now, Willson said staff members are serving about 50 percent of the 125 children they're licensed to accommodate at the Church Street facility.

"Our main focus now is to try to make sure the kids get on track or if not on track, as close to on track as we can," Conway said. "And assisting the schools, assisting our community."



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