How Expanded Learning Programs and Schools Work Together to Support Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic
According to the American Institutes for Research (AIR), “COVID-19 created a host of new challenges for educators and exacerbated many pre-existing ones. Conversely, the pandemic also provided educators and policymakers with opportunities to innovate, become more adaptive, and learn best practices that will continue to be relevant long after the crisis has passed.”
In April 2021, AIR published an interview with Femi Vance, Ph.D., an AIR researcher, on how expanded learning programs and schools can work together to support students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are excerpts from the interview. The full interview is available here.
Q: How has COVID-19 affected expanded learning programs? And how have the programs helped students?
A: Expanded learning refers to the programs that operate outside of the normal class hours—before and after school, in the summer, and over holiday breaks. Such programs offer students a whole host of supports and learning opportunities: a safe and supportive learning environment, academic enrichment, caring adults, opportunities to build peer relationships, social and emotional support, and fun. These programs have quickly and creatively figured out how to keep serving families during the pandemic. According to the Afterschool Alliance, when the pandemic hit last year, 25% of programs nationwide closed; as of March 2021, only 3% are closed.
In December 2020, California’s Afterschool Network (CAN) released a report on the state of afterschool programs. Remarkably, it showed that California’s expanded learning programs continue to serve students who have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, including Black and Latinx students, English language learners, and students who are living in poverty. That’s really important, because the evidence tells us that high-quality expanded learning programs lead to measurable positive outcomes for students, including improved school attendance and stronger social and emotional skills.
During the pandemic, many expanded learning programs pivoted in all sorts of ways. For instance, they delivered meals to families who are struggling, and they helped families without internet obtain educational resources. In a few instances, expanded learning programs have been able to help social services connect with hard-to-reach families, because they can draw upon existing relationships. Some programs have kept their doors open, providing child care to the children of essential workers. In general, they’ve continued to offer emotional support and connection, which is essential in these socially distant times.
Q: Why is it important for schools and districts to coordinate on expanded learning programs, and what are some takeaways from AIR’s work on how to strengthen those partnerships?
A: I think a lot of educators don’t want to go back to the system we had before. There were major disparities in how students were being served, and the pandemic provides an opportunity to reimagine the system to eliminate those gaps. Many programs are really just starting to think about equity, but this requires intentionality: Equity has to be defined, and existing barriers have to be named and identified before they can be dismantled.
Partnerships between schools and expanded learning programs have always been important; the pandemic has reinforced that point. We can leverage those partnerships to create a seamless learning experience from school to afterschool and also provide equitable learning opportunities. Implementing that kind of programming—one that meets the needs of each student—requires collaborative planning. That way, both partners can establish shared goals and make adjustments to achieve them. Our discussion tool offers guiding questions that can be used in collaborative meetings about whole child learning opportunities. Schools and expanded learning partners can use these questions to initiate conversations about a range of topics, including equity.
Q: Many children are returning or have returned to in-person schooling after learning elsewhere for some time. What supports will they need, and how can partnerships between schools and expanded learning programs help?
A: We know from our analysis of re-opening plans that states are elevating the critical need to provide whole child supports to students, including social and emotional supports and mental health services. As I see it, supports for social and emotional learning and development are built into the fabric of expanded learning programs. As expanded learning programs and schools better integrate learning, as I described earlier, it would be great if that led to more active conversations about strengthening social and emotional learning and development across the school day and expanded learning programs.
For mental health, expanded learning programs typically don’t have a mental health professional on site. But these programs can be a wonderful resource to make referrals to local free and low-cost mental health service providers. They also can serve as an early warning system for families whose children are experiencing mental health issues. This is important because the earlier that problems are identified and treated, the better the outcomes are likely to be.
Q: What are some lessons learned for both California and other states as they address the current educational challenges the pandemic poses, but also anticipate new challenges after the pandemic ends?
A: One very exciting lesson is that these innovative partnerships are possible, because they’re building on existing strengths and assets. The current structure is not necessarily optimized, but there are a lot of opportunities available. For example, the California governor’s 2021-2022 proposed budget allocates $4.55 billion for expanded learning time and academic interventions, which includes expanded learning programs. We’ve also seen California become more flexible on the grant requirements for these programs, and this has allowed programs to continue serving families in spite of the pandemic.
Another major takeaway is that we should be thinking about how to help children succeed on every level, figuring out what families need and how we can provide it. That’s the approach expanded learning programs in California have taken during the pandemic, but it would also serve us well even when this moment passes.
Lastly, we should continue to focus on equity. Even after the pandemic, we need to continue to ask ourselves: Who do we typically not hear from? How do we get them what they need? In other words, how can our partnerships continue to chip away at systemic inequities?
Femi Vance, Ph.D. is a researcher at American Institutes for Research (AIR). She researches and evaluates out-of-school time programs and provides technical assistance to youth development professionals. She strives to translate her research into practice via board service, training, and practical and relevant blog posts and guides.
About AIR: Established in 1946, with headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, the American Institutes for Research® (AIR®) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance to solve some of the most urgent challenges in the U.S. and around the world. We advance evidence in the areas of education, health, the workforce, human services, and international development to create a better, more equitable world. The AIR family of organizations now includes IMPAQ, Maher & Maher, and Kimetrica. For more information, visit www.air.org.
In our work with young people, it is important that we think about the many ways they may have been impacted by COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), "Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) can affect adolescents directly and indirectly. Beyond getting sick, many adolescents’ social, emotional and mental well-being has been impacted by the pandemic. Trauma faced at this developmental stage may have long-term consequences across their lifespan."
The CDC offers several briefing papers on how the pandemic has impacted the mental health of young people. They offer 4 papers by age group. Below we include excerpts from Social, Emotional, and Mental Well-being of Adolescents during COVID-19. You can read the complete paper here.
Change in Routines- In addition to everyday steps to prevent COVID-19, physical or social distancing is one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to the virus and to slow its spread. However, having to physically distance from someone you love – like friends, boyfriend or girlfriend, family or your worship community – can be hard. Adolescents may struggle when asked to change their social routines – from choosing to skip in-person gatherings, to consistently wear masks in public settings. It is important for adults to help adolescents take personal responsibility to protect themselves and others, as well as support them in safely taking time to connect with friends and family remotely.
Break in Continuity of Learning- School closures due to COVID-19 have meant that adolescents have been participating in learning from home. Online platforms and communities have become essential, as families turn to digital solutions more than ever to support students’ learning. Unfortunately, the immediate need for virtual learning environments brought to light inequity in resources, access and connectivity across families and communities. School closures have also meant a break in access to some essential developmental services like occupational, behavioral, or speech therapy. It could also have impeded continuity in adolescents’ development of athletic or hands-on vocational skills, with potential impacts on their higher education and professional future. It is important to understand how virtual learning could make learning increasingly challenging for students with limited resources or special needs. Moreover, some children may experience anxiety about going back to school in-person or virtually. Some may also experience fatigue from online video conferencing— commonly referred to as “zoom fatigue .”
Break in Continuity of Health Care- Parents may have avoided seeking health care for their adolescents due to stay-at-home orders and may continue to do so because they are afraid of getting sick with COVID-19. This includes important well-child visits, immunizations and oral health care. Additionally, school closures have impacted many adolescents’ ability to receive mental health, speech therapy and occupational health services on campus. It is important to ensure adolescents receive continuity of health care, including continuing mental health, occupational and speech therapies (e.g. via telehealth), and receiving vaccines – including COVID-19, when it becomes available.
Missed Significant Life Events- Physical distancing can feel as if one is placing life on hold. The truth is that the clock keeps ticking. Birthdays, graduations, proms, homecoming, vacation plans, births and funerals are just a sample of the many significant life events that adolescents may have missed experiencing during COVID-19. Social distancing, stay-at-home orders and limits to gatherings have affected their ability to gather in person with friends and family to celebrate or grieve in typical ways. Grief is a normal response to losing someone or something important to you. It is important for family and friends to help adolescents and alternate, creative and safe ways to connect and support each other at a distance.
Loss of Security and Safety- Job loss and lost wages affected the household income of many adolescents’ families during COVID-19. Economic insecurity is consistently linked to adverse development, academic achievement, and health outcomes. It may affect adolescents’ ability to consistently access healthy foods, safe transportation and housing. Mounting economic stressors can increase their risk for exposure to violence. Along with stay-at-home orders during COVID-19, some adolescents may have been increasingly exposed to abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence at home, and sexual violence. Their increased online activity also puts them at increased risk for online harms, such as online sexual exploitation, cyberbullying, online risk-taking behavior, and exposure to potentially harmful content. It is important for parents and other prosocial adults to maintain a trustworthy relationship and open communication with adolescents, watching for behavior changes that may signal distress.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Recognize and Address Fear and Stress- Adolescence is a time of big changes. Adolescents can be particularly overwhelmed when stress is related to a traumatic event, expressed as excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, and difficulty with attention and concentration. Adults can provide stability and support to help them cope, as well as facilitate access to professional help and distress emergency hotlines, as needed.
Teach and Reinforce Everyday Preventive Actions- There are actions we can take to protect others, prevent getting sick and slow the spread of COVID-19. Encourage adolescents to be good role models— if they wash their hands often, stay at least 6 feet apart from others, and wear their masks in public spaces to help protect themselves and others, then younger children – and even their peers – are more likely to do the same.
Help Keep Adolescent Children Healthy- Teach adolescents the importance of taking care of their health. Engage them in scheduling routine check and immunizations visits. Ensure continuity in their mental health and occupational health care. Encourage them to eat healthy, drink water – instead of sugar sweetened beverages – for strong teeth, be physically active, or learn something new. It can help them stay healthy and focused.
Help Adolescents Stay Socially Connected- Encourage adolescents to reach out to friends and family via phone, video chats, social media, or even via video games. Schools may have tips and guidelines to help support their social and emotional needs.
Steps to Help Provide Stability and Support to Adolescents
By Sam Piha
Summer programs will be an important gateway to returning to school and healing from a year of isolation. However, these programs should not be pressured to fix the pandemic induced learning loss. Two available articles on focusing on learning loss deserve a read: Too Much Focus on ‘Learning Loss’ Will Be a Historic Mistake and Our Kids Are Not Broken.
Our kids have lost so much—family members, connections to friends and teachers, emotional well-being, and for many, financial stability at home. And, of course, they’ve lost some of their academic progress. The pressure to measure—and remediate—this “learning loss” is intense; many advocates for educational equity are rightly focused on getting students back on track. But I am concerned about how this growing narrative of loss will affect our students, emotionally and academically. Research shows a direct connection between a student’s mindset and academic success.” – Ron Berger, Senior Advisor at EL Education
We’re in the throes of a pandemic. Put yourself in the perspective of a 9-year-old. Students have been looking at a computer for the better part of a year as they learn. So, any summer learning enrichment experience really needs to be re-engaging students in a community of learners. That’s done through experiential learning, getting outdoors, doing projects, [while] maintaining the health and safety standards that are required, to really re-engaging them with experiences. It could be connected to a museum visit. It could be connected to a summer camp where they have experiences.” – Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education
How should we be thinking about our “gateway” summer youth programs? What do youth need from their summer program experiences? How will this year's summer programming differ from past years? We asked some youth program professionals to share their thoughts on how we should we be thinking about summer programs.
This summer is a chance to test theories and demonstrate excellence in collaborative, active, meaningful experiences. We may only get this chance, at this scale, once. The hypothetical question, “if you had [nearly] unlimited funding for summer learning, what would you try, change, experiment with?” is now a reality. This is the time for innovators.
There certainly is great academic learning loss, no question. The social emotional learning loss, however, coupled with the loss of daily personal human contact will have left students with an acute need for programming, activities, and play that intentionally address those needs. As we all know, these basic and critical human needs must be addressed, before there can be any real academic learning. Training to help understand and identify students' mental health issues, coupled with knowing how to refer them to services, will likely be the long-term challenge.
This year’s gateway summer youth programs must be multi-faceted. There is a strong need for social-emotional supports, academic interventions and enrichment opportunities. Programs will play an integral role in re-acclimating students to a structured environment to lay the foundation for their successful return to full-time on-campus instruction. Youth need structured, supportive, well-organized, and focused hubs to support these healthy transitions and provide a break from the monotony of life during the pandemic. While we’re a long way from our old normal, the ability to craft programs that are safe, supportive, and engaging are endless. This year’s return to summer programming has never been more important. As we approach summer programming, we must maximize the opportunity to reach all students. While data will indicate which students are most at-risk and in need of targeted supports, there is also a very real need to maintain contact with and provide supports for students that are at grade-level or above.
This summer, our young people will need the time to breathe, to play, to reconnect, and to enjoy themselves and one another. In many ways, it can be similar to reuniting a family after being apart for so long... to tell their stories, to share their experiences, and to begin the process, welcomed for some and awkward for others, of being together again. This time for healing and reconnecting with their peers and teachers will hopefully rebuild communities of safety, renewed comfort, and stability that can then serve as a foundation for reigniting learning. Being patient and allowing space for the awkwardness of reestablishing connections and for the opportunities to address the trauma and pain of this pandemic year will be essential as we focus on the social-emotional needs of us all- both students and adults.
After a full year of learning isolation, young people are just now returning to school, in a face- to- face or hybrid model. This Fall youth are likely returning to school full time. Summer youth programs will be an important gateway to returning to school and healing from a year of isolation. But how should we be thinking about our gateway summer youth programs? What do youth need from their summer program experiences? How will this year's summer programming differ from past years?
On Friday, May 7, 2021, we are sponsoring a Speaker's Forum/ webinar discussion on this topic. It will be facilitated by Ayala Goldstein (Director of Programs, California School- Age Consortium). She will be joined by Aaron Dworkin (CEO of National Summer Learning Association), Autrilla Gillis (Director of Expanded Learning, ISANA Academies) and Selekha Ramos (Mighty Writers) who will be sharing their thoughts and responding to your questions. To register and learn more, click here.
By Sam Piha
The Play Captain model is an excellent way to engage older youth over the summer in community service and promote safety for younger kids. This model was developed in Philadelphia by Rebecca Fabiano and her organization, Fab Youth Philly. Below Rebecca responds to a few of our interview questions. If you are interested in learning more or having an exchange with Rebecca, contact us and we will arrange a Zoom discussion. Rebecca is also available for remote or in-person training.
Q: Can you briefly describe the Play Captain’s Initiative?
A: Coined after the Block Captain and Jr. Block Captain roles, the Play Captains Initiative is a workforce development and civic-engagement initiative with the mission to empower and train teens in leadership, playful learning and facilitation to make the Playstreets and neighborhoods of Philadelphia more playful.
There are over 400 Playstreets in Philadelphia every summer, which are part of the Free Summer Meal Program, overseen by Parks & Recreation and serve as a safe place for children to receive two free meals a day during the summer. The Playstreets are closed off to cars between 10am-4pm and a resident on the block applies to be a Playstreet Supervisor; they distribute the meals. Not all of the Play Streets are as ’playful’ as they could be, which is why I created this initiative. I saw the opportunity to tap-in-to two underutilized resources in our City; the Playstreets and teens.
Q: Do you provide training for the Play Captains?
A: We do provide training for the Play Captains. Play Captains are teens ages 15-19 and they receive about a week (35 hours) of pre-employment training where they learn about concepts like playful learning and effective facilitation. They spend a lot of time playing games and learning how to modify them for a number of conditions and situations they may face on the Playstreet. They ALSO receive weekly professional development (PD) on Fridays on a variety of topics. They are paid ($9/ hr) for their time in training and for PD.
Q: How do you work with the community?
A: We work all year round with the community to build relationships with both individuals and other organizations. We attend community meetings both to learn about the happenings in the neighborhood and to promote the program. We also work with the Police Department and the Community Relations Officers (CROs) and created a “how to work with our Play Captains” guide for the CROs to encourage positive interactions.
Q: How are youth selected and assigned?
A: Youth complete an application and typically participate in a group interview. For most teens (over 85%) this is their first job and so we want them to have a positive experience that really reflects what it takes to get a job. If we don’t hire a teen, we provide them with resources where they can keep looking for jobs.
The Play Captains work on a team of 5 teens, supported by 1 adult Group Leader. The Group Leaders are youth work professionals that we hire and train. We are often able to hire youth work professionals that are from the neighborhoods where we are playing/on the Playstreets, which helps in a number of ways. They are often known to others, so that helps bridge a connection between our organization and the community and, then after the program is over, they are able to maintain connections to the teens. We prioritize placing teens on Playstreets in the neighborhoods where they live. Then, day to day, they follow a schedule where they rotate to a number of Playstreets throughout the day, for a total of 4 days per week (Mon-Thur) for 5 weeks. They go to the same streets over the course of their employment in order to build consistency and relationships with the children that play on the Playstreets.
Q: How are you amending the model in response to the COVID pandemic?
A: We ran the program last summer in the height of the Pandemic and put several safety measures into place, which we plan to put into place again this summer. For example: everyone wore masks indoors and outside; we did a deep clean of our indoor space 3x per day; we deep cleaned all of the supplies (balls, jump ropes, etc.) at the end of each day; and we created special socially distance arm signals to help the children on the play streets keep a distance. For example: Airplane arms (arms out to the side) when we wanted to have them stand in a circle or near each other, Frankenstein arms for when we needed them to line up and maintain some distance and Hands on Hips, once they are in their socially distance position.
Q: What do you believe are the benefits to the youth participants?
A: One of the biggest benefits is that this opportunity provides teens with a first job experience. About a quarter of our teens go on to get afterschool jobs the fall after they are a Play Captain. Other benefits that the teens often report include: feeling valued by their community and feeling like they can make a difference in the lives of younger children; and many teens that self-define as shy say that they had a chance to meet new people and “come out of their shell.”
Q: What do you believe are the benefits to the community?
A: I’ve been told by residents how much they appreciate seeing the teen Play Captains engaged in something positive and that they feel it is good for the community that the teens have something meaningful to do.
Q: How do you assess the impact of the program?
A: For the past three years we’ve worked with a Playful Learning Landscape Action Network (PLANN) who developed a data collection tool and who train data collectors to collect data on the Playstreets to see if the activities the Play Captains facilitate help foster the Six Cs of Playful learning (collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence). We also pre/post survey our teens to understand what they learn during training, and what they retain over the course of their employment. We conduct exit interviews with staff and engage in post programming focus groups with residents, Street Supervisors and other stakeholders. We use the data to revise training and to improve the selection of the activities that the teens facilitate on Playstreets, as some examples of how we strive to be a data-driven project.
Q: If there is interest, would you be able to assist others in replicating this initiative?
A: Absolutely! We’ve built a program based on best practices in youth development, workforce development and community engagement, yet it is adaptable and flexible. I would encourage people to check out our website: www.playcaptains.com and watch our videos on YouTube to see the Play Captains in action.
Rebecca Fabiano (She/Her/Hers) is the President and Founder of Fab Youth Philly and The Play Captain Initiative. For nearly 25 years, Rebecca has worked in various capacities across nonprofit and youth-serving organizations, served on boards and helped to build solid youth programs that engage, encourage, and create spaces for positive development. As a program leader, she has successfully raised funds and managed program budgets; hired and supervised staff; developed and sustained strong community partnerships and designed award-winning programming.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.