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.
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.