COVID-19 has been a triple success in adult education.
The need to fill skill gaps is greater, pandemic precautions make instructions difficult to provide, and funding is critically low.
Blount County’s Adult Education Foundation had a grand celebration planned in April 2020 for their 25th Annual Adult Spelling Bee, an event that traditionally raises more than $ 4,000 but had to be canceled due to COVID-19.
It had to blur plans for a new ScrabbleMANIA fundraiser that it planned to start last November.
“It’s really down to the wire,” Executive Director Jackie Taylor said in a recent interview.
“I don’t know we’ll make it through the year,” she said. “We really need support from the community.”
Shortly before Valentine’s Day, the non-profit organization is hoping to raise funds with a “Share the Love of Learning” campaign.
The AEFBC works with other organizations to offer a variety of programs. Despite the district’s relatively low unemployment rate, there is a high need for higher literacy, arithmetic and skills among the workforce.
Estimates based on data from the International Adult Skills Assessment Program show that one in six Blount County’s residents has the lowest literacy rate.
“You can’t really understand printed matter,” explained Taylor, especially beyond short paragraphs.
Almost 39% are at level 2 on the three-point scale and have difficulty taking more than simple measurements.
Taylor and instructor Al North have seen the problems in their students, whether they have learning difficulties or have not used certain skills in a long time.
“Most of my interns didn’t know how to use a ruler, and they’re young adults,” said Taylor.
North made changes to Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University program for classes he teaches. “How can you handle money if you don’t know how to do fractions, decimals, or percentages?” Said North.
The effects go well beyond the workplace.
“There are many social issues that impact adult education, including health literacy,” Taylor said.
“Almost one in five adults in Blount County reports poor health, and we know those who can read and write less are at greater risk of poor health,” she said. Now they are more disadvantaged as people struggle to understand the latest information about the pandemic.
The people who need these classes spend more of their income on housing, and the only internet access they have can be through a mobile phone.
The foundation works with a number of community organizations to offer a range of adult education programs.
English as a Second Language has just started meeting again in person two days a week at Maryville’s First Baptist Church, and North teaches men in recovery in True Purpose Ministries once a week in work readiness and finance classes.
Career courses offered through the Blount partnership have gone online, and the foundation has provided books for the American Career Center as it teaches remotely and in small groups.
Computer courses and manufacturing internships offered through the Blount County Public Library are also being adapted for online delivery.
When the pandemic hit last spring, classes at the Blount County Justice Center were suspended indefinitely.
In a typical year, nearly 50 inmates completed the 18-week Workforce Preparation Skills Development program and nine-week Financial Peace University.
The skills of the workforce include not only reading, math and technology, but also topics such as problem solving, conflict resolution and lifelong learning.
North has switched teaching materials to PowerPoint, but the logistics of delivering teaching remotely in prison is getting complicated.
After teaching the classes for more than a decade, North also wonders about replicating important parts of the program online that are not in any textbook.
He is concerned about offering the kind of support with tasks that he can personally give by watching over their shoulders, as well as offering emotional support.
“Half of my job is not what I teach, but also building relationships to build a sense of hope that they can use and apply these tools,” said North.
“A lot has to do with self-esteem,” he said. “I won’t let her give up. This is my philosophy. “