Centricity Credit Union opens up for distance learning

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With students in Northern Minnesota attending school virtually for the time being, Centricity Credit Union in Hermantown, near Duluth, has opened its doors to employees’ children, serving as a distance learning center so parents can work while kids attend school remotely.

The $184 million-asset institution is hosting students on different days at three different branches, all located in three different school districts, “so it really works nicely for us as far as spreading out the amount of potential kids that would be in the office,” President and CEO Doug Ralston explained earlier this month.

While some credit unions offered programming in the spring for younger children who were not yet in school, Centricity is believed to be one of the only institutions offering this sort of programming for school-aged kids.

With some staffers already having considered leave options available through the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act because their children were learning from home, Ralston said the decision to open up for distance learning allowed Centricity to continue normal operations and let staff use FMLA or other time off when they need it, rather than being forced to use it because of the pandemic.

“It was a unique opportunity that was presented to us,” he said. “We sat down and said, ‘How can we help? What can we do as a credit union to support our staff in this trying time and try to relieve some of the burden of them trying to find other people to watch the kids during the afternoon or having to go to a parent or grandparent.'”

According to Cyndy Carlson, director of human resources and training, participants range from ages 5 to 12. While only about seven students were taking part early in the semester, she suggested those numbers could grow as the year goes on and students’ workloads increase.

About 80% of the credit union’s staff are still working remotely, but for those who are working in the branch and bring their kids with them, students are placed either in lobbies, conference rooms or offices, depending on the amount of available space and how self-sufficient the child is. In branches where more than one student is working, some stations have Plexiglas partitions so students can more safely distance from one another and avoid spreading germs. All students are required to wear masks, wash hands frequently and undergo temperature checks upon arrival.

Centricity also hired a tutor to spend one day in each office during the week to work with students and help keep them focused. Additional tutoring hours may be added should demand arise, and the program is expected to continue for as long as students are doing distance learning.

“Basically our goal is helping the kids get their homework done throughout the day so when mom or dad go home they can parent and be a family, and not have to be on the kids to get their homework done,” said Carlson.

Centricity officials said the program has had no operational impact on how the credit union does business.

So why haven’t more institutions latched on to this concept? Ralston suggested many may still be overwhelmed by their own COVID response plans and busy with other responsibilities.

“There’s a lot of credit unions out there that are still trying to figure out the day-to-day and how to operate, and I think they may not be thinking on a wider scope of the needs and wants of what their staff is going through,” he said. While some CEOs he’s spoken to have indicated interest in putting their own similar programs in place, he’s not aware of any that have done so yet.

“This is just an extension of our culture that we’ve built over the last several years,” he added. “I truly believe keeping our staff active and happy and able to be part of our family is part of the success of our growth.”

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