Loraine Richards oversees a group of second-graders during virtual learning classes in Susannaberg, St. John.

When schools made the shift to remote learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many students found themselves home alone, struggling through their assignments while their parents went to work. When Julius E. Sprauve School fifth-grader Darianny Santana found it difficult to grasp the basics, she turned to a trusted mentor: Loraine “Ms. Pat” Richards, founder of the Dynamic Dancers, of which Santana is a member.

“It was harder for me to do it by myself because I didn’t have any help,” said Santana, who would video chat with Richards when she needed extra assistance. “At home, when I was on a break from class, I would just stay and watch my TV.”

Now, not only is Santana benefitting from in-person academic assistance, she also has the opportunity to run outside and play with friends during breaks. Santana and 25 of her peers have come together under the watchful eye of Richards and Lioness Bruce, who are helping students from three different schools in grades 3 through 7 navigate the world of virtual learning under one roof. Using donated space at Moses’ Laundromat in Susannaberg, Richards and Bruce oversee the students as they attend their remote classes, making sure the students are staying on track and answering questions that come up along the way.

“Doing school at home on the computer was kind of hard because I didn’t really understand what we were doing,” said Debowa Romain, who’s part of the tutoring group. “Being here helps me understand better.”

The student group initially formed in March 2020, when three parents asked Richards if she could help their children through virtual learning. Richards donated her time to oversee the small group in an outdoor schooling environment in Cruz Bay. Concurrently, Bruce, who’s working to establish a career in education, had been hired to oversee students of her own.

“I said, ‘Lioness, you need to join me. We need to get together,’” said Richards.

The two women teamed up and ultimately helped 17 students through the 2020-2021 school year. With the tutoring taking place outdoors, the threat of rain was always an issue. Richards and Bruce were offered a room at the laundromat for the 2021-2022 school year by property owner Karris Moses, who brings masks, hand sanitizer, and antibiotic soap for the students every time she visits the island. The number of students grew to 26, and there’s now a waiting list for parents who have to work, but would like for their children to have in-person assistance as they work their way through the virtual school year.

“We are not here to make sure the kids have straight As,” said Richards. “That’s always been the parents’ job. Ask your kids what they did in school today, what they have for homework. Make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. We’re the backup, watching to make sure the teachers don’t need to call you while you’re at work, asking why your child isn’t participating.”

The tutoring duo has been bolstered by community support, from the donated space at the laundromat to a donation of $2,000 by the Coral Bay Community Council, Coral Bay Yacht Club, and Coral Bay residents who banded together to help fund the purchase of an air conditioner for the classroom space.

“We’re extremely grateful for everything she does in the community, and we do our best to support her and the needs she has,” said CBCC president Sharon Coldren of Richards. “It’s super important that kids get to learn through interaction with adults, and group setting is important for most kids, particularly the ages she’s working with.”

Richards noted how helpful the Julius E. Sprauve School administration has been as she guides several of the school’s students through online learning.

“The staff is incredible,” she said. “They help me a lot and they’re always there to back me up in any situation, especially [Acting Assistant Principal] Jeune Provost. She and the principal, Michelle Rogers-Bully, are in my corner 150 percent.”

Provost also had kind words for Richards’ efforts with the students.

“Teaching and learning during COVID-19 has been particularly challenging, especially for parents that cannot adequately monitor or support their children academically,” said the JESS acting assistant principal. “Having a community outreach program like Ms. Pat’s has helped many families.”

The students have also helped Richards and Bruce in unexpected ways. Spanish speakers talk only in Spanish on Mondays, helping the women become familiar with the language, and Haitian students teach their tutors and their peers Haitian Creole words and phrases. The academic assistance group is also helping Bruce gain experience in the field of education, which she’s always been drawn to. Richards and Bruce, who’ve unofficially dubbed themselves L&L Online School, hope to continue tutoring and working with students even as the pandemic wanes and students return to in-person learning.

For now, the tutoring duo is seeking the donation of a van to facilitate outings to the beach or other outdoor venues. Donations of school supplies, snacks, juice, and water are also needed, and one student is in need of a laptop. To make a donation, contact Richards at 340-626-4804.