October 12, 2020; San Diego Union-Tribune

How does a child engage in distance learning when they’re crammed into a tiny apartment with slow internet speeds? How does a parent who’s lost their job find the means to keep their children enrolled in school while trying to fulfill immediate unmet needs such as food, housing, employment, and utilities? How can schools navigate their operations of getting students to participate in distance learning when many don’t have regular access to a healthy meal?

With the pandemic and the need to maintain social distancing, getting students enrolled and connected has been a priority for schools across the nation. However, ensuring student education goes beyond distributing devices and internet hotspots. In the San Ysidro District, where three-quarters of the students come from low-income families, three-fifths are English learners, and one-fourth are homeless, the negative impact of poverty on these communities is proving to be the biggest barriers to learning.

“I think the school districts have an insurmountable task. It’s engaging these youth when there are so many competing interests,” Maurico Torre, vice president South Bay Community Services shared with the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Schools in San Diego County have started leaning on the nonprofit South Bay Community Services to provide much-needed resources for schools to support students and their families during this time. From referrals, the organization connects with students whom the schools are unable to track down—from the student whose grades were slipping because she was helping her two younger siblings with distance learning and wasn’t able to focus on her own education, to the high school sophomore who was living with her grandma in a car, to the parent who lost her receptionist job and didn’t know how she was going to pay next month’s rent. Thus far, schools in San Ysidro, South Bay Union, National City, and San Diego United have referred over 1,300 students to the organization from the beginning of the school year.

Within the same district, many schools have also been supported by Casa Familiar, a nonprofit that has been helping to get students enrolled for the new school year. The organization brings enrollment registration to families through pop-up tent registration booths at affordable housing complexes and their community center.

School districts are embracing these kinds of community partnerships with nonprofit organizations. “We’ve done a lot of work in having community partners assist us in reaching out to those families, even though they’re not able to come out or they don’t want to or there’s a physical reason they can’t,” Rachel Murphy, director of Food and Nutrition Services, shared with the Daily Orange.

In Syracuse, New York, schools are facing similar challenges giving room for collaboration. Nonprofits like Good Life Foundation have delivered hundreds of meals for students whose families weren’t able to pick them up in person, possibly due to disabilities or those in quarantine. The Syracuse City School District has also partnered with Mercy Works, which packed over 30,000 boxes of groceries during the pandemic to help families with children in schools.

As Murphy observes, “If anyone thinks it’s just riding on one person’s back alone, it never has been, and it never will be. The city isn’t just the school system—it is many, many agencies, organizations and individuals.”

In these challenging times, we can’t expect schools to have the solution to solving this problem alone, with few resources. Now is the time for schools to tap into their network—the array of community organizations, individuals, and institutions, right at their fingertips. Nonprofit organizations have a mission and through partnerships and collaborations, both parties can find ways to best serve their communities.—Deidre Fraser