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Lifelong learning for every age

A.L. community education adapts for the pandemic

COVID-19 has left its impact on every aspect of life, and Albert Lea’s Community Education is no different. Though much of the programming has had to shift or go online, employees are working to expand options and bring people together in different ways to continue learning.

Community Education Director Chris Chalmers said last March when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the shift of K-12 education to distance learning, the Albert Lea school district’s early learning and adult learning programs shifted, too.

The district works with roughly about 200 children on a daily basis through its pre-K options, and staff for these children began reaching out online and sending home kits, he said. Though numbers were down a little this year for Adult Basic Education, staff continued GED testing and even did some house visits to check in on students.

“Teachers did an amazing job to provide the best we could last spring,” Chalmers said.

The new Tiger Cub Daycare, which opened right before the shutdown, has been running nonstop throughout the pandemic. Chalmers said the day care has the capability of housing 44 children, and there are still spots available for children ages 6 weeks to 3 years. The daycare is open to both staff in the district and others from the public.

Aside from these teaching opportunities, Albert Lea Community Education’s general enrichment opportunities have evolved, too.

While at first during the pandemic many of the classes were canceled when people were not meeting in-person, there were a few in-person classes in the fall following social distancing guidelines and other health precautions. Now, for the winter, Chalmers said many of the classes have shifted to being digital, with expanded course offerings.

“Community Ed is really evolving and changing as this pandemic goes on,” Chalmers said. “I’m a big believer of bringing people together, but I’ve learned through this we can still build community, even though we’re not in the same room.”

Kim Ehrich and Kim Herfindahl, who help organize the general enrichment classes, said they reached out to St. Louis Park Community Education about cooking classes and were directed to a group of metro community ed instructors that are teaching online classes. They have incorporated some of those classes into the winter catalog, along with several local instructors as well.

This winter’s course offerings have included everything from cooking classes you can take online from your own kitchens to professional development opportunities and self-care courses. There are business and finance courses, classes for learning how to use technology and classes via Zoom with Daisy Blue Naturals in Albert Lea. There are also fitness and wellness courses and some youth options, among others.

In addition, Community Ed is offering take-home kits and STEM kits for children, where people can get the materials for a project and then work on it at home.

Ehrich estimated there were probably around 100 courses for everything from general enrichment to youth classes.

She said the pandemic was unforeseen, but it has helped open their eyes to opportunities available for the community and has made it so that the community has more options than previously available to choose from.

“We’ve been working hard to give everyone some options,” she said. “We always need to keep doing this if possible.”

Ehrich and Herfindahl encouraged people to look at the options available and to reach out if they have ideas for more. They also reminded that people don’t have to be a certified teacher to teach a community ed course — they simply need to have a passion for the topic.

Though Community Ed’s experiential learning took a major hit this summer, Chalmers said he was hopeful The Boathouse would be able to offer more programming this summer. The district recently received a grant to purchase more canoes and kayaks and will be able to accommodate larger groups.

He hoped Community Ed would be able to offer snowshoe checkout this winter.

Chalmers thanked the about 50 people who make up the Community Ed staff for being flexible over the past year and for putting their passion first.

“The staff — they really care about what they’re doing and sharing their talents,” he said. “We’re very fortunate for our community to provide programming for all ages. It really is lifelong learning for every age.”

Albert Lea Community Education is based out of the new fieldhouse at Hammer Complex. Chalmers said he hopes by next fall, they will be able to start having classes there.