In March, the education arm of animatronics giant Garner Holt Productions was gearing up for its busiest season ever. Then coronavirus hit.
Garner Holt Education through Imagination had to reinvent itself when the pandemic switched off a season booked full of school field trips, programs and day camps.
“Just overnight it all went away,” said Bill Tynan, director of Secondary Education and Workforce Development with the company.
Like so many other companies, he said, Garner Holt Education began looking for ways to not just survive, but to offer something helpful in a time of need.
“We thought, ‘Well, how can we be of service, how can we do what we believe we do best, and have it align with the needs of our community?’”
They started offering their education programs virtually this summer, and as most San Bernardino County schools opened up online in August, the Redlands-based company started an in-person distance learning support program dubbed the Creative Learning Lab.
More than just socially distanced daycare with robots, the lab offers academic and technical assistance, and hands-on coding, engineering and arts activities, all run by credentialed teachers.
Patron Julie Jacobson said the program is exactly what families need.
“My husband and I would be lost without a reliable and safe option for our kids to do distance learning so we both can work,” she wrote in an email.
She said she appreciated being allowed to tour the facility beforehand to see firsthand what safety precautions are in place. Desks are at least 6 feet apart and sanitized five times each day, temperature checks are conducted at the door, and masks are required for most activities.
Tynan said staff feel blessed to have a large commercial building which gives them the room needed to safely offer the program. If they run out of space in their current spot, a cavernous room slated to become a community makerspace has been readied to be put into use.
Each distanced learning station includes a 5-by-7-foot rug, a desk and some decorations, but kids are allowed to bring their favorite chair, toys, blankets and more.
“It ends up looking like a little dorm room,” Tynan said. “… they just ended up making it their own, which is really cool.”
He said he has seen how just getting his two children up and out of the house in a school-like routine is beneficial.
His 9-year-old daughter especially “had a hard time losing the last third of her school year, missing her friends and missing her teachers and missing her school,” he said. “Coming here, I think it has given her, maybe not the same thing, but a substitute that at least helps her feel like things are a little bit more normal.”
Jacobson said her children, ages 6 and 9, really enjoy the social aspect.
“They are making new friends and getting to spend time working together in the afternoons during the extracurricular time,” she said.
Prices range from $35 to 85 per day for partial- or full-day programs, and registration is still available.
Tynan said he understands the lab may not be the cheapest option for parents, but the program is unique.
Students can dream up and create animatronics shows while learning scriptwriting, voice recording, programming, lighting, sound, costuming, sculpting and more.
“It’s the same opportunities that exist across the street at Garner Holt Productions, when it comes to building theme park animatronics,” he said.
Though schools in the county could potentially reopen in mid-October, if local case and positivity statistics don’t worsen, the lab will continue indefinitely, Tynan said.
Some school districts may choose to keep remote learning in place, others may partially reopen, and still others may be forced to close again if numbers worsen.
“We’re just trying to stay very flexible so we can continue to meet the real needs of families,” Tynan said. “That was where we started with this, and I think when we’re staying truest to that goal, we will remain relevant.”
Written by Jennifer Iyer for the Redlands Daily Facts