With COVID-19 necessitating some school districts to facilitate entirely remote instruction or a hybrid model, districts have looked to creative solutions to support students and parents during this difficult time. Alternative learning spaces have emerged as one such innovative solution, enabling students to learn in a safe and supervised environment, with continuous access to the Internet for remote learning.


Alternative learning spaces are designated locations where students can go during the school day to access the Internet and do schoolwork with supervision and social distancing. School districts have partnered with various groups to identify locations for these spaces, including community centers, conference rooms within public libraries, communal rooms within public housing, or even existing school buildings if they are not being used for in-person instruction.

Alternative learning spaces can serve a dual purpose in providing a free childcare option to support parents who are essential workers or cannot afford childcare, as well as providing Internet access to students impacted by the digital divide. 

Key Considerations

  1. Identify appropriate locations: spaces must be set up to facilitate remote student learning and enable social distancing
  2. Ensure that each location has robust connectivity: spaces should support your district’s goals for student participation and modes of instruction (synchronous instruction will require the strongest connectivity level from a wired broadband provider, while hotspots or other interim solutions may support asynchronous instruction)
  3. Get the equipment you need: each student should have access to a dedicated learning device, and each building should have wi-fi connectivity and access points 
  4. Assign a project manager and support team to manage logistics: this team should assign students to specific locations and monitor participation to avoid under- or overbooking locations, communicate with supervisors to ensure protocols are being followed and address any issues as they arise
  5. Leverage community-based organizations (CBOs) or local governments to partner together on this project

  • Directly supports the parent community by enabling a free childcare option
  • Provides students with continuous access to the Internet for digital learning
  • Creates an opportunity to provide meals to serve vulnerable children
  • Allows districts to leverage local government or CBO support and resources

  • Identifying appropriate locations that require minimal upgrades to facilitate student learning may be challenging
  • Robust connectivity is needed: an audit or assessment of current bandwidth and capacity is required to ensure each location has high-quality broadband access
  • Students should have access to their own learning device: districts that already have a 1:1 program will be best-suited
  • Staffing capacity required to manage logistics and work with partners to facilitate locations


The city of Philadelphia, in collaboration between city departments and community partners, is opening 31 free centers across the city to host students who can’t stay at home during school remote learning days. Most of the Access Centers will serve around 22 students each and will require registration, with priority given to “students with the highest need who can’t safely stay at home during the school day,” Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said in a news release.

The centers will be open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and provide Internet access. Students who participate will be supervised and receive meals and recreational activities. The first phase of the center openings began in early September and serves 800 students from kindergarten to sixth grade. All students in the city will be eligible to use the centers, regardless of whether they attend a public, charter, or private school. Centers will be added on a rolling basis, with 50 sites expected to open and more added if needed. 

Most of the sites will operate out of existing Parks and Recreation rec centers, in addition to the Free Library of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Housing Authority sites. The sites will adhere to the city’s health and safety guidelines, with staff getting appropriate training and child-abuse clearances. 

CASE STUDY: NEW YORK CITY INTERAGENCY PARTNERSHIP (Mayor’s Office, City Hall, Department of Youth & Community Development, NYCDOE)

As the New York City Department of Education resumes schooling this fall, most schools and early childhood programs operate on a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning. An interagency partnership between the Mayor’s Office, Department of Youth & Community Development, and the school district has created a new program called Learning Bridges to provide free childcare options for students from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade, on days when they are scheduled for remote learning. 

The Learning Bridges program will be operated by community-based organizations and other partners and plan to allow children to connect to their remote learning activities. They will include time for art, recreation, and other activities. These locations will follow the same rigorous health and safety precautions as New York’s schools.

Priority for placement will be given to families in temporary housing, children of school and program staff, families residing in public housing developments, children in family foster care or receiving other child welfare services, students with disabilities, and children whose parent/guardian is an essential worker.

Learning Bridges sites will be paired with schools and contracted early childhood programs so that students will be interacting with a similar cohort of students even between sites, to minimize contact where possible.


Glendale Unified School District began their academic year with a fully remote learning model. After realizing that many young children of essential workers wouldn’t have childcare options, Superintendent Vivian Ekchian pushed to have 20 of the district’s elementary schools reclassify some empty classrooms as alternative learning spaces. Ultimately, about 1,000 of the 13,000-grade schoolers will head to these classrooms for remote learning.

Each classroom will facilitate no more than 12 students in what Glendale calls a “technology pod,” which will be supervised by a single substitute teacher or district staffer.

The staffers won’t be teaching the students — they will instead be present to offer computer technical assistance, monitor students’ mask use, enforce social distancing, and keep students focused on their work.

Because there is no formal learning going on in the classrooms, the district was able to categorize usage of the school space as childcare, which is permitted under Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 related restrictions. 

Desks will be at least 6 feet apart, and drinking fountains have been turned into handwashing stations. Students will be allowed recess and playtime, but each child will have their own toys and equipment and keep their distance. Pods will not intermingle, and siblings will be in the same pod. Breakfast and lunch will be brought to the door and distributed by the supervisor. Students will have a temperature check each morning and answer health questions before entering school.