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Coronavirus Upends After-School World
Staff members from ourBRIDGE for Kids, a Charlotte, N.C.-based after-school program, package meals for families. Courtesy ourBRIDGE for Kids

Aseel Salih knew the delivery was coming, but it still nearly brought tears to her eyes.

Staff from ourBRIDGE for Kids-a Charlotte, N.C.-based after-school program for English-learner and refugee children-knocked at her door with sacks of packaged breakfasts and lunches for her school-age children, ages 10 and 13.

"It was a joy when they knocked at my door to bring the meals for the children," said Salih, an Iraqi immigrant. "It takes a bit of the burden from our shoulders."

The extended school closures caused by the coronavirus crisis have upended the nation's after-school programs, leaving most with no children to serve and no schools to operate out of. Most organizations have shut their doors. But some, like ourBRIDGE, have pivoted to offer new services and extend their hours, doing what they can to help families struggling with food insecurity, lost jobs, and cooped-up children.

"If you're serving meals, you're not doing it between 3 and 6. you're doing it whenever kids need it," said Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. "If you're checking in on kids, it's not necessarily between 3 and 6. The field is very concerned about the kids that they're serving and trying to do all they can."

Using a combination of grant funds and partnerships with foundations and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, ourBRIDGE helps distribute about 1,000 meals per day to families, hosts virtual check-ins for students, delivers personalized activity boxes of art and STEM supplies to homes, and conducts U.S. Census outreach efforts in the heavily immigrant neighborhoods it serves in east Charlotte.

Volunteers and staff from ourBRIDGE for kids distribute groceries to families in Charlotte, N.C.

Courtesy ourBRIDGE for Kids

When Salih's husband lost his job, ourBRIDGE staff guided him through applying for unemployment benefits. Staff members now deliver dinners for the entire family and dozens of others, securing meals through support from funders and local restaurants.

Similar efforts are underway in other after-school programs based in south Boston, southeast Kansas, and other parts of the country. In some locales, the support comes in the form of twice-a-week Zoom meetings with a trusted after-school counselor. In other places, it's food delivery or online tutorials that offer tips on how to pen essays and make sense of algebra.

"These are tough times. We need to make ourselves relevant and if the kids are not here, how do we make it happen?'" said Sil Ganzó, the founder and executive director of ourBRIDGE. "Because the need is still going to be there and if anything, it's going to increase."

Thus far, the Charlotte-based nonprofit has kept its entire 26-person staff employed, but not all after-school programs have been that fortunate.

Nationwide, at least 70 percent of programs have furloughed staff or cut jobs and hours as a result of the pandemic, estimates Gina Warner, the president and CEO of the National Afterschool Association, a national membership for after-school administrators and staff.

'Greater Need for Services'

In Connecticut, another provider, EdAdvance, is doing its best to keep staff on the job because they'll be needed when schools there eventually re-open-and the programs will need people prepared to work with youth.

The regional education service center, which provides before- and after-school programs for nine school systems in the western part of the state, has kept staff immersed in training sessions, preparing for next school year, said Tracey Lay, the organization's chief talent and collaboration officer and director of before- and afterschool programs.

Staff members are meeting with small groups of students using Zoom, delivering physical education lessons, and checking on their social-emotional status. They are also connecting with school district food service departments to provide grab-and-go meals in towns, such as Torrington and Winsted, that are hit hard by COVID-19.

EdAdvance has tapped its reserves to keep staff on the payroll, but the job loss in the industry has been widespread, advocates said.

Employees from other organizations are taking temporary part-time gigs, such as delivering packages, until they can get back to work. With those employees making comparable money elsewhere, program directors are concerned they will not come back when the spread of coronavirus begins to slow, said Grant, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance.

"It's a field where it's hard to get quality people to begin with," Lay said. "We need them when we're ready to gear up again. And we knew that from the beginning that eventually we'd be going back."

Before this week, there was even a slight chance that EdAdvance staff would be working with children again this school year. That was until Gov. Ned Lamont made the call Tuesday to keep school buildings closed for the rest of the academic year, making Connecticut the 47th state to make that call.

The eventual reopening of schools could arguably be the most essential complication to overcome for economic recovery. Many parents simply cannot go back to work if their children are still home; the typical 9 to 5 shift does not align with school bell times.

Yet governors are increasingly lifting the lockdown restrictions that kept many workers at home.

"There's going to be a greater need for services as people get back to their lives," said Warner of the National Afterschool Association. "Many of these [out-of-school] programs are going to have to figure things out even before schools do."

Before the pandemic struck there were an estimated 10 million children enrolled in after-school programs.

If some of the proposals floating around to reopen schools-such as one-day-on, one-day-off schedules or staggered half-day shifts-become reality, an even greater demand could emerge. More children will need a safe place to stay when classes are not in session and the need to maintain social distancing could force some programs to hire even more staff, so that children can attend programs but remain insulated in smaller groups.

"It's a scary challenge, but it's going to be something that people are relying on us for," said Lay of EdAdvance.

Problems Staying Connected

During social distancing, programs in urban centers and rural towns are adding online tools to more traditional services to remain connected with families.

The Paraclete after-school program in south Boston is working to keep families fed and students learning.

The program, staffed largely by AmeriCorps volunteers, serves about 35 4th through 8th grade students. Most of the children live in two of the city's largest housing projects.

Staff members are offering online tutoring. The nonprofit also provides meals for their students through an agency that collects unused food from restaurants, grocery stories and delivered bags of groceries for families who may be struggling to find meals.

"We knew that we still needed to serve the community because that's our mission, helping these families," said program director Molly Zollo.

To help the cause, interns from local universities, including Boston College, created YouTube videos to assist elementary and middle school students with math, reading, and science lessons.

ourBRIDGE for Kids staff and volunteers distribute bags of groceries to families in Charlotte, N.C.

Courtesy ourBRIDGE for Kids

Despite their best efforts, the staff members have struggled to touch base with all their students.

"It's a lot easier to connect when parents are coming every day to pick up their kids and you can kind of meet them at the door and engage that way," Zollo said. "Technology is not the easiest for a lot of families."

In Iola, Kan., the Safe Base program is connecting with students via Facebook to host cooking and crafting lessons, bike repair tutorials, and TikTok dance competitions. Staff are also offering story time and virtual tours of must-see places in the town of 5,300.

For families with little or no access to technology whose children may need academic support, BellXcel, a national nonprofit that helps design out-of-school time programs, has developed a multi-week curriculum that allows students to work independently on math, English-language arts, and social-emotional learning skills.

BellXcel, which partners with after-school programs in 33 states and the District of Columbia, began rolling out the program this month. The curriculum adjusts for whatever the technology availability is in the home, said Brenda McLaughlin, the chief impact officer for BellXcel.

Education leaders are bracing for an academic "summer slide" this year for students who struggled to engage in remote instruction due to technology challenges or other factors.

"Kids who are living in under-resourced communities may be struggling," McLaughlin said. "That is magnified now that we're in this period where a young person may not have had any formal in-person schooling since March or earlier."

That time out of school has been painful for many families. As the economic and hunger crisis has intensified in some places, some families who refused assistance at first are now asking for help, officials said.

"The relationships that we have built in trust for years are still here. We are not an after-school program [where] if your kids are not here, we're not here," Ganzó said. "It's like, we are going to be here anytime, all the time. Pandemic or no pandemic. They know that."

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