Young minds interested in cooking, fencing or zookeeping need look no further than the Facebook page of SAFE BASE, a Kansas-based after-school program working hard to keep kids engaged while they’re at home instead of in a classroom.
The program is used to providing an average of 10 activities to 150 elementary-aged students a day and has been a well-known staple in the community for the last two decades, said Angela Henry, director of SAFE BASE.
SAFE BASE wasn't going to let school closures get in the way of that.
“The students and the parents depend on us,” Henry said. “We aren’t going to be standing on the sidelines watching when there was work that needed to be done.”
Such seems to be the case for many after-school and extracurricular programs across the country in the age of the novel coronavirus, where instructors of all kinds are having to get creative to keep kids learning.
“I’ve seen all sorts of curriculum — from cheerleading to chess to soccer drills to one-on-one homework help,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports and advocates for quality after-school programs. “Depending on the age of the kids, it could be 'Simon Says' through a Zoom call.”
While some after-school programs remain open to provide child care for children of essential workers who must report to work amid coronavirus stay-at-home orders, Grant said most are not meeting in person.
As of April 7, three in four after-school programs were not operating as usual, according to a recent poll conducted by the organization. And 78% had moved to serve kids remotely or were finding alternative ways to stay connected.
That’s true for the Mighty Writers after-school program in Philadelphia, as well as SAFE BASE.
“When it became clear ... the virus had landed in town, we had eight different locations around the city, and we closed them all down immediately,” said Tim Whitaker, Mighty Writers' executive director.
While not all of the program’s regular activities are easily replicated online, Mighty Writers has continued many of its workshops for kids, including popular ones focused on mindfulness and girl power, Whitaker said. There’s even a new workshop in the mix aimed at helping students identify bad information and conspiracy theories related to COVID-19.
Yet academic needs aren’t the most prevalent right now for the students the program serves. The coronavirus has made regular economic hardships even worse for many whose parents have lost their jobs.
“It was a crisis immediately,” Whitaker said of one particular location with a high population of children from immigrant households whose parents worked in the hard-hit restaurant industry. “We went to our snack provider and asked if they would be capable of providing lunches for that community.”
Some Mighty Writers locations also give out groceries and diapers, and the line for those goes around the block, he said.
Distributing meals and more
The shift in focus isn’t unusual: 37% of respondents to the Afterschool Alliance poll said their programs were distributing meals or other resources to families.
“It’s a whole new world, and it seems to me that when this hit, nonprofits had two choices” — pivot to continue serving their community or anguish over losses and stop serving, Whitaker said. “It seemed like a pretty easy choice for us.”
Yet without question, the losses among after-school program providers have been steep. At the time of the Afterschool Alliance poll, 75% of respondents were in danger of losing staff or closing due to lack of funding.
Programs receiving federal funds should still have income, but programs charging fees to parents are especially in danger, Grant said. And while layoffs make sense, under the circumstances, she said it’s still hard to witness.
“All the time that’s been invested in training staff and also the relationships they have with the kids they serve are in danger,” she said.
Yet staffing, however crucial, is still a secondary concern for many programs in the Afterschool Alliance network. “The first need was, ‘We’re worried about our kids.’ These are the kids that are most likely to fall off the map to begin with,” Grant said. “Even in the poorest of areas where we’re worried about academics, I think the big concern right now is the emotional wellbeing of our kids. If kids are not fed, and if kids are not feeling safe, then there’s no way they can learn.”
Inequities in clear focus
Another thing that’s rung “loud and clear” in the field is that educational inequities are being exacerbated by the pandemic, Grant said.
Although school lessons in many districts have shifted mostly online, many kids don’t have access to computers, tablets, or even Wi-Fi. A 2018 Pew Research Center analysis found 15% of households with school-age children do not have a high-speed internet connection. When looking specifically at households with an annual income below $30,000, this was true for nearly one-third of them.
In Philadelphia, Whitaker’s team has been handing out pencil-and-paper writing and grammar activities to kids who don’t have the option to continue their learning online, asking them to return the finished assignments at the next day’s meal pickup. And for those who do join his team on Zoom, staff have noticed the students seem to appreciate an audience and a platform to talk about what they’re experiencing.
“Their home life is pretty challenged in the best of times, and now it’s really tough times. They’re house-bound, and economics are bad, so it’s just not an easy place to be for these kids,” Whitaker said. “So when they’re doing these workshops, I’m hearing from the instructors … that they’re opening up about what they’re feeling and then writing about it.”
Grant said her organization has been working closely with school teachers and district leaders to check in on kids and let them know they’re being missed — even if that can only happen behind a screen or from a safe distance.
“I think that goes a huge way to make sure you’re not feeling isolated and alone,” she said.