COVID-19 has been a triple hit to adult education efforts.
The need to address skill gaps is more intense, pandemic precautions make delivering instruction complicated and funding is critically low.
The Adult Education Foundation of Blount County had planned a big celebration for its 25th Annual Adult Spelling Bee in April 2020, an event that traditionally brings in more than $4,000 but had to be canceled because of COVID-19.
It had to scuttle plans for a new ScrabbleMANIA fundraiser it hoped to launch last November as well.
“It’s really down to the wire,” Executive Director Jackie Taylor said in a recent interview.
“I don’t know that we’ll make it through the year,” she said. “We really need some support from the community.”
With Valentine’s Day approaching, the nonprofit is hoping to bring in donations with a “Share the Love of Learning” campaign.
The AEFBC partners with other organizations to offer a wide variety of programs. Despite the county’s relatively low unemployment rate, the need for higher literacy, numeracy and workforce skills is high.
Estimates based on data from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies put one in six Blount County residents at the lowest level of literacy.
“They can’t really comprehend printed material,” particularly beyond short paragraphs, Taylor explained.
Nearly 39% are at Level 2 on the three-level scale, struggling to do more than simple measurements.
Taylor and instructor Al North have seen the problems in their students, whether they have learning disabilities or have just not used certain skills in a long time.
“Most of my interns did not know how to use a ruler, and they’re young adults,” Taylor said.
North has modified Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University program for classes he teaches. “How can you manage money if you don’t know how to do fractions, decimals or percents?” North said.
The impact goes well beyond the workplace.
“There’s a lot of social issues that adult education impacts, including health literacy,” Taylor said.
“Nearly one in five adults in Blount County reports fair to poor health, and we know that those who are less literate are at greater risk of having poor health,” she said. Now they are at a greater disadvantage as people struggle to understand the latest information about the pandemic.
The people who need these classes spend a higher portion of their income on housing, and the only internet access they have may 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 classes have just started meeting in person again at Maryville’s First Baptist Church two days a week, and North is teaching workplace readiness and financial classes once a week to men in recovery at True Purpose Ministries.
Career classes offered through the Blount Partnership have moved online, and the foundation has provided books for the American Career Center as it teaches remotely and in small groups.
Computer classes and manufacturing internships offered through the Blount County Public Library also are 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 would go through the 18-week workforce readiness skill development program and nine-week Financial Peace University.
The workforce skills cover not simply reading, math and technology, but also topics such as problem solving, conflict resolution and becoming a lifelong learner.
North has converted class materials to PowerPoint, but the logistics of offering instruction even remotely at the jail will be complicated.
After teaching the classes for more than a decade, North also wonders about replicating online important parts of the program that can’t aren’t in any textbook.
He’s concerned about offering the type of support with assignments he can give in person by watching over their shoulders, and offering emotional support, too.
“Half my job is not what I am teaching but also building relationships, building that sense of hope that they can take these tools and apply them,” North said.
“A lot of it has to do with self-esteem,” he said. “I’m not going to let them give up. That’s my philosophy.”