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Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Covid NineTEEN Project: How Two Teens Created Free Activities for Elementary Students

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When local schools transitioned to distance learning, Skye Loventhal and Sarah Shapiro, 17-year-old upcoming seniors at Granada Hills Charter High School and best friends since the age of 2, knew a lot of kids were struggling, especially younger kids.

They knew because both their moms are educators. They also had heard anecdotally from younger friends and friends with younger siblings. They decided they wanted to do something to help. So they enlisted a small group of other Granada Hills Charter students and created the Covid NineTEEN Project.

On June 15, the entirely teen-run operation debuted its summer program, offering more than 200 live, virtual half-hour classes a week, all free, for kids ages 6 to 11. Among the classes on a recent weekday were Egyptian Art History, Web Design, Intro to Spanish and the very popular Disney Workout. Free private tutoring in math, English, science and history also is available, in more than a dozen languages.

In addition to co-founding the project, Skye and Sarah both lead or co-lead several classes, or “activities,” in project parlance, each week.  Skye, who lives in Porter Ranch, does journaling, morning mindfulness and yoga, among other classes. Sarah, who lives in Northridge, does public speaking, Epic LEGO Challenge and a Harry Potter read-aloud. Together, they also teach Zumba and a class called “Shark Tank: Lil’ Entrepreneurs.”

Sarah said teens are especially well-positioned to mentor and inspire elementary- age kids during a time when many may be feeling isolated.

“Teachers and parents, yes, they can look to them,” Sarah said, “but they are more an authority figure. Teens are the perfect in-between. Teens are young enough that they can still relate to the kids, almost being like their peers. At the same time, [the teens] are old enough that they can set an example of what [the younger kids] can become and motivate them to reach their potential, even during this time when it can feel like there is no reason to push themselves academically, artistically and athletically.”

A virtual Yoga class takes place on Zoom as part of Covid NineTEEN Programming. Courtesy of the Covid NineTEEN Project

Fortunately, there has been no shortage of teens keen on volunteering. Initially, all the teens who applied were from Los Angeles. “Now we have volunteers from all over the United States,” Skye said, adding that currently, they have almost 150 teen mentors. They aren’t accepting new applications now, although they expect to do so sometime in July. All mentors are required to complete an application, including an essay, undertake an interview and commit to a minimum of two half-hour sessions each week, whether leading classes or via private tutoring.

Skye said they look for teens who are passionate. Prior experience teaching or working with younger kids is not required. “We wanted to be able to give people that experience,” she said. Applicants overly focused on boosting their resume or college admissions chances aren’t considered.

Teens are young enough that they can still relate to the kids, almost being like their peers. At the same time, [the teens] are old enough that they can set an example of what [the younger kids] can become and motivate them to reach their potential, even during this time when it can feel like there is no reason to push themselves academically, artistically and athletically.” — Sarah Shapiro, 17

Over the summer, classes are offered seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. And often, there are multiple class options at any given time. The only requirement for students to take classes, aside from the permission of a parent or guardian, is the ability to access Zoom, the platform the project uses.

Since the Covid NineTEEN Project debuted, some 400 elementary-age students have taken classes. They represent more than 20 states and half a dozen countries, including Argentina, South Africa and Bangladesh. But the founders and 16 board members are actively working to recruit more students. They plan to continue the project through the fall, offering classes and tutoring in the afternoons and on weekends once school resumes.

For Skye and Sarah, the project is akin to a full-time job, albeit without pay. Sarah said most days she works 14 to 18 hours, waking up at 9 or 10 a.m. and powering through until about 4 p.m. She is hoping to begin taking Sundays off soon. Skye begins her day earlier, rising around 5 or 6 a.m. The biggest challenges have been tech related, the teens said: issues with Zoom or having to create new Gmail addresses after maxing out their email allotment on their existing accounts. But the feedback from parents, they said, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“My 8-year-old daughter just took the journalism class,” one parent wrote. “She did not know what journalism was until today. She has now told me she wants to be a journalist when she grows up and is currently writing her third story.”

And for  Skye and Sarah, working with the kids makes it all worthwhile.

“Honestly, when you see those kids all lit up, when you are teaching them a lesson … . This is my favorite part of any week,” Sarah said. “It is the most amazing thing.”

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