Mount Airy Learning Tree suspends classes due to Covid

by Walt Maguire
Posted 11/27/20

Since 1981, Mount Airy Learning Tree (MALT) has used the “neighbors teaching neighbors” approach to tie the Mt. Airy community together.  Since most of this involves offline, hands-on experiences, they have decided to pause all programs until Fall 2021.

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Mount Airy Learning Tree suspends classes due to Covid

Posted

Since 1981, Mount Airy Learning Tree (MALT) has used the “neighbors teaching neighbors” approach to tie the Mt. Airy community together.  Since most of this involves offline, hands-on experiences, they have decided to pause all programs until Fall 2021.

Enrollment dropped substantially in the spring, when students could no longer gather in community centers for small, personal lessons. For many, the point of the classes has been socially gathering to share knowledge and get out in the community.  Shifting this to a digital version has proved difficult, both technically and culturally. No online classes had ever been offered before last spring.

While 106 courses were available online in the Fall, that’s down from the approximately 300 usually offered in over 50 locations throughout Northwest Philadelphia. Some of the most popular classes require in-person interaction and cannot take place safely in pandemic conditions. Swimming, horseback riding and ping-pong had to be temporarily discontinued. Current digital courses include Philadelphia Black History, working remotely, dream interpretation, and making holiday ornaments.  These will complete their run in December.

Jim Wuenschel, a retired teacher, taught a flyfishing course 10 years ago. Now 86, he had been a fly fisherman since high school, and decided to teach a course to share something he wanted to share. Students would meet for a few weeks and learn how to make flies, and then Jim would take them out to the Wissahickon for some casting practice. “It wasn’t just a lecture and then put your feet up,” he said. “If you want a hands-on experience, that’s what the courses were meant to be.”

Stephanie Bruneau has been Executive Director since the summer of 2018.  She grew up in Mt. Airy. Her sister took ballroom dancing classes, and her father learned the harmonica. Her mother ran MALT support groups for women. Bruneau used to teach a class on beekeeping.

“While some of what MALT does can be done online, many of our classes don't translate," she said. “What we do is bring people together in informal environments.” Holding classes in spaces throughout Mt. Airy serves another purpose besides finding classroom space: It affords an opportunity to get inside historic or cultural sites that might otherwise be off someone’s radar. “We’re connecting diverse people, and connecting people to places.”

Financially, the structure of MALT has shaped its pandemic challenges. Since many classes were held in church and library meeting rooms, they have not faced the same building costs as other small businesses forced to lock down.  (The main building at Greene and Hortter is owned by MALT, and the second floor is rented out.) However, most of the income is from enrollment. Teachers are paid a percentage of the tuition for their classes.

“Pressing the pause button will allow us to conserve our resources so that we can work together again in the future,” Bruneau said. “Together, we will see a time when our community is able to come together and move forward, climbing out of the darkness that this pandemic has brought to so many.”

To shore up its funding sources, MALT has launched a matching fund drive.

“We’ll need substantial funds for next summer’s upstart,” said Bruneau. “Part of it will be to print and distribute a course catalog.”

In a normal year, they distribute around 70,000 catalogs to coffee shops, libraries, senior centers, and other Mt. Airy locations.

More at mtairylearningtree.org. To donate to the matching fund, mtairylearningtree.org/donate/

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