With the abrupt closure of schools around the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many community-based organizations that provide critical supports to students in the school building have had to stop offering services. Others have quickly transitioned to a new way of serving students and have learned some early and important lessons along the way.
Child Trends has been working with youthCONNECT at Suitland High School, a group of nonprofits serving students at Suitland High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland (see “About youthCONNECT” below). The last day of in-person classes in Prince George’s County Public Schools was March 13, 2020, and within a week, youthCONNECT pivoted to serving its students remotely for the remainder of the school year. This blog shares what some of our youthCONNECT partners have learned about serving students during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, students are trying to adjust to a new academic and social reality. At the same time, they are separated from many of the caring adults on whom they usually rely for support and advice, including teachers, coaches, and community members. Many students find it hard to stay motivated to learn remotely and miss in-person interaction with their teachers. Many also struggle with the lack of routine and structure, finding themselves bored and frustrated. youthCONNECT partners check in with youth at least once a week—in some cases almost daily—to provide encouragement, positivity, and a non-family outlet for them to vent. The Suitland principal and administrators have emphasized the importance of contact between youthCONNECT partners and students during this time, and have expressed their gratitude for the continued social, emotional, and academic support that partners provide.
Community partners can no longer go into a classroom to check on a student, conduct home visits, or read a student’s body language when the student insists that ‘everything is fine.’ Early in the shutdown, youthCONNECT partners learned that the mode of communication that one student prefers may not work for another, and that some students will be more resistant to connecting. youthCONNECT partners have tried individual and group text messages, phone calls, social media, and virtual meetings on different platforms to find the mode that works for each student. For students who don’t respond, partners have reached out to family members or through a student’s friends; in other cases, they can enlist school administrators and teachers for help. And some partners have used other approaches: Urban Alliance created an Instagram account to connect with students they hadn’t heard from, and Maryland Multicultural Youth Centers (MMYC) has used food bag delivery as a time to talk to students and families in person from a safe distance.
Some wraparound supports provided by youthCONNECT partners were quickly transitioned online with relative fidelity. Hillside Work-Scholarship Program (Hillside) began conducting its weekly life skills training sessions online almost immediately. Year Up transitioned its information sessions to a virtual platform and reached out to teachers and administrators to invite seniors who might benefit from the program. Many partner staff are helping students with schoolwork remotely, taking questions that might normally be directed to teachers. Urban Alliance has transitioned from offering its professional development workshop content in person to sharing it via teachers’ virtual classrooms. Other services have been expanded or reimagined; for example, one advantage of virtual engagement opportunities is that they can feature speakers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to travel to meet students in person. Dozens of students have taken advantage of Urban Alliance’s new online office hours. Hillside added virtual college campus tours to its trainings. Peer Forward’s national office is producing a podcast for students to provide information that peer leaders would typically share in person with their fellow students.
youthCONNECT partners discovered early on that some families weren’t aware of available resources, such as the laptops that Prince George’s County Public Schools issued to students who didn’t have devices at home, or the meal distribution sites throughout the county. Many others were confused about distance learning expectations and requirements. Often, this kind of information doesn’t reach the intended recipients because students lose their school email passwords, phone service gets shut off, or caregivers’ contact details in the school’s system become outdated. Additionally, during the COVID-19 crisis, many people are simply overwhelmed with the amount of information they receive. Through weekly meetings, youthCONNECT partners share information with each other about resources in the community. Partners also connect with school administrators, who attend meetings to answer questions that students have posed about distance learning requirements and directives from the school district. The youthCONNECT partners can then ensure that students and their families get information about services to meet their basic needs, along with guidance to stay on track academically.
youthCONNECT is an initiative developed by Venture Philanthropy Partners, in which a network of nonprofit partners work together to support students to graduate prepared for college and careers. At Suitland High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, youthCONNECT is made up of five nonprofits: Urban Alliance, Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection (Hillside), Maryland Multicultural Youth Centers (MMYC), Peer Forward, and Year Up. The partners provide a range of services, including individualized case management, mentoring, college preparation, life skills training, and afterschool tutoring.
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