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Teen centers adapt their services

AMERICORPS VISTA MEMBER Mikayla Humiston, left, and Cicilia Robison, executive director of the Addison Central Teens center in Middlebury are among the staff at local teen centers that are welcoming back students now that schools are open.

MIDDLEBURY — Slowly but surely, parts of Addison County are seeing a return to the “old normal,” aka pre-COVID-19 conditions. Some restaurants are starting to offer limited indoor seating. Lodgers are taking reservations. And school is back in session.
And here’s another sign of normalcy: Area teen centers are again offering afterschool drop-in hours for students looking to study or have some fun at a safe location until dinnertime.
The Independent spoke with representatives of Addison Central Teens (ACT) in Middlebury and the Hub Teen Center in Bristol to see how they’ve adapted their respective operations to accommodate students during the pandemic. Their common strategy: Encourage outdoor games, maintain social distancing, enforce mask wearing and ramp up gaming and other virtual interactions between teens at the center and those who must stay at home.
Area teen centers are also working hand-in-hand with schools to promote virtual learning during the “hybrid,” back-to-campus fall semester. For example, ACT has launched drop-in hours for remote learning, Tuesday through Thursday, 12:30-2:30 p.m.
Addison Central Teens is headquartered in the Middlebury Recreation Park, adjacent to Mary Hogan Elementary School. It serves kids in the communities that feed Middlebury Union middle and high schools: Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. Led by Executive Director Cicilia Robison, ACT provides varied afterschool (3-6 p.m.) and school break programming to those who stop by for a snack, foosball, tennis, kickball or just a comfortable place to study.
Times have changed since ACT held its last afterschool hours back in mid-March, after which the coronavirus kept all students at home. They finished out the school year through a remote learning system. With no students to serve, ACT and other teen centers went into mini-hibernation. ACT re-emerged the past summer with a five-week camp that served around 12 campers per weekly session.
Embracing social distancing and face coverings, those campers participated in a variety of activities, including “Culinary Creations,” STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), outdoor adventures and exploring the arts. Local teens got to explore our area, traveling a total of 313 miles in a mini school bus borrowed from the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center. Piloted by Robison, the bus took kids to such destinations as the Robert Frost Wayside Trail in Ripton, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Branbury State Park and Silver Lake.
Summer camp gave ACT officials hands-on training on how to successfully run afterschool teen programming during COVID. Robison on Friday, Sept. 11, reported she’d seen about eight center drop-ins during the first week of school. It’s a number she believes will ramp up substantially when parents and teens fully realize the teen center is back open and dovetailing with the new “hybrid” schedule that area schools have adopted for the fall semester.
“It’s been a slow three days, but I have hopes,” Robison said.
The schools’ hybrid schedule calls for half the school population to be on campus Mondays and Tuesdays, then the other half attends in-person classes on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are for teachers to provide individual attention to students who need it.
All students spend three days per week studying remotely.
Robison said students can attend the teen center any day of the school week. Masks are mandatory indoors, where there’s a limit of 15 people at one time. There’s no limit on how many teens can rotate in and out of the center on any given day.
“The schools were not segregating student pods for afterschool activities, so we chose to allow kids from both pods to come to afterschool programs here on all days,” Robison said. “I’d rather them come here where it’s safe, than feel like they have to go sneak off somewhere else to hang out with a friend who goes to school the other two days of the week.”
ACT has six computers at its center, but attendees are encouraged to bring their own laptops. Robison wants to make sure there’s plenty of distance between computer stations, and the portability of laptops is a big plus.
ACT staff maintain a list of areas that are regularly cleaned and disinfected during the course of the day.
“I’m trying to make sure we follow every single safety precaution,” said Robison, who received regular guidance from state health care officials.
“You don’t want to be the place where something happens.”
Activities will soon ramp up at ACT. Dungeons & Dragons will start in the next week or so. Offerings will resume for students who identify as LGBTQ, including a “support teens” group. There will be writing workshops led by Middlebury College students.
But sadly, the one thing ACT can’t offer right now is what a lot of kids need during these hectic times: A simple hug.
“Part of growing up is you need that physical contact,” Robison said. “Kids need hugs. They can’t get hugs from their friends, their teachers and other people in their lives. It’s one of those things where you’re trying to give as much as you can in the safest way you’re able.”

AT BRISTOL’S HUB
Meanwhile the Bristol Hub at 110 Airport Drive is again providing study, entertainment and snack options for 5-Town area teens.
Alex Mihavics is assistant director of the Bristol Recreation Department and a Hub supervisor. The Hub is open 3-6 p.m. each weekday school is in session — except for Wednesdays.
The Bristol Rec Department ran summer camps this year and used The Hub as a bad-weather go-to. With school now back in session, The Hub is taking similar COVID precautions as local schools: Temperature checks and hand washing before kids come in, mandatory masks indoors, and the building’s maximum capacity is currently 20, according to Mihavics.
Hub drop-in attendance at this early stage has understandably been light — around half the usual 20 kids who usually stop by after classes.
As with ACT, attendees of The Hub are encouraged to recreate outside, with scooters and skateboards on loan. There’s a great skate park right behind The Hub building. And that park will see a lot of action beginning next month, when The Hub launches a skateboarding program through the Burton “Chill” Foundation.
The Hub building has a large open space equipped with musical instruments, foosball table, arts and crafts supplies, board games, TVs and a virtual reality system hooked up to one of the four in-house computers.
Mihavics noted The Hub is also trying to reach teens who can’t be there in person. The center is patched into a Discord communications platform that allows users to speak with each other during online gaming, and message each other.
Hub Executive Director Taylor Welch is working with Mount Abraham Unified School District officials to bring a tutoring system to the teen center. If approved, The Hub would be open for students on their respective remote learning days.
“We think they might come to a place with decent internet and is open and safe,” Mihavics said. “They don’t have to be stuck at home. They can also get some help with homework.”
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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