Photo: Thomas Courtney
A student on a school partnership visit to The Discovery Center meets sea turtle "Emerald" up close and personal.

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My dog Oreo barked his head off as usual when the Amazon delivery came that morning. Moments later, my phone dinged.

“That was ME who just delivered your package! Take it easy, Tom!”

The message was from my friend, Alex Garcia, one of the teachers at Earthlab, a nonprofit in San Diego that teaches how the environment plays in the lives of us all. I responded with a silly quarantine joke and he told me that he was indeed working for the delivery company now.

My humor turned to sadness thinking about losing such an incredible outdoor educator in a program that has served my inner-city fifth-graders for so long.

I didn’t think of it then but this morning I saw one of my favorite education and conservation partners was struggling, too. After learning that The Living Coast Discovery Center needs to raise $100,000 this month or shut its doors, (not to mention euthanize many of its wild and rehabilitated animals), I can’t stop thinking about programs like it and like Earthlab.

Suddenly I realized that if we don’t change more than just shifting our classes to online learning, we are going to lose a lot more to the pandemic than casual dining restaurants and a raft of mom-and-pop retailers.

We know that programs such as The Earthlab bring real-life understanding to children beyond our current curriculum. These community partnerships awaken stewardship, they electrify appreciation, and they cement understandings in ways teachers can’t in their classrooms. Such nonprofits exist throughout the state — where you are, too — often as the last vestiges of the arts, humanities and conservation sciences. They need our help like never before.

Concerned, I phoned my friend JoAnna Proctor, who is the director of education at Earthlab. Proctor works in southeast San Diego, bringing quality science, technology, engineering, math and conservation science to our students who otherwise wouldn’t get it. While the Earthlab occupies four acres of wild spaces almost in our backyard, it’s a virtual learning program only now that we’re in a pandemic.

Photo: Thomas Courtney

JoAnna Proctor (center) points out an osprey hunting in the Tijuana Estuary to students Liliana Rodriguez(left) and Led Valladolid (right).

“It’s pretty much just me now, Tom,” she told me when I phoned her. “My core group was four of us, myself and three of my educators. But the other three needed to find work, and programs are only funded when kids are learning.”

Proctor told me how she asked roommates and friends to volunteer time recently. She told me how many of the people who worked at Earthlab do so part-time, and often work elsewhere to make ends meet. Even if Proctor can bring in new educators later on, they will all need to be retrained.

“It’s other things, too,” she continued. “Gardens need watering, grounds need to be tended and kept secured.”

She told me that the children really loved the virtual classes, but that many didn’t realize how much fun it would be. Joining my daughter Onora in one of Proctor’s online classes recently, I learned that myself. Onora took virtual tours to the zoo, and to science centers around the world. Proctor even brought in guest speakers in the fields the kids were studying!

Photo: Thomas Courtney

Thomas Courtney (far right) with students and families from Chollas-View attend a field trip with JoAnna Proctor on March 14, 2020, the last field trip before the Living Coast Discovery Center had to close its doors because of the pandemic.

And there are other barriers. Teachers are now dealing with new technology. Kids sometimes have troubles logging in even with proper hardware and Wi-Fi. And sometimes, people just aren’t used to a virtual experience, says Proctor. And a fear of what’s being called a “covid-slide” makes Proctor worry that educators may be reluctant to make time for Earthlab once we’re back in the classroom.

But we have the time now!

This moment is going to make or break some things that we support or do not support through our dollars.

But also through our time.

Whether you are a teacher who responds to that outreach email, or you are a parent whose child is invited to an “optional” class, please give time to some of these local, temporarily virtual spaces. Fill screens with your presence, letting the funders of these programs know we are still here, and we still care about what they offer our children.

We don’t all have a choice of where we can go these days, but we all can still choose where we go online, and what we learn while we’re there.

I think you’ll agree, we need to keep programs like the Earthlab open as much as we need our favorite restaurants.


Thomas Courtney is a 20-year educator with San Diego Unified School District and teaches in southeast San Diego. 

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