Banksy’s ‘FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS — CANCELLED’ as of August 2011,” Chris Devers

Nearly one year ago, schools across the country abruptly shut their physical doors due to COVID-19. In spite of heroic efforts on the part of teachers and administrators, the pivot to online learning was uneven and chaotic at best. The Pew Research Center estimates that only half of students have successfully engaged in distance learning while at home, with students from lower income families, in particular, losing ground.

And even the good students are harmed, as a public high school student from West Philadelphia explained to NPQ last summer:

I need to be hands-on to be taught….None of the schools had this planned out….It would’ve really stressed you out if you weren’t passing. Thank God I was passing. I had a GPA [grade point average] of 3.6, when it happened, but I was working to have a GPA of 4.0. That was my goal. I want to make it into a good college. That messed it up for me. On top of that, your junior year is your most important year. My expectation was to leave junior year with a bang. I’m going to get an A. Then, they took it away from me.

One report predicts the pandemic will cause the average student to fall behind at least seven months, while students from low-income families could see more than a year of learning loss.

What can be done? One strategy is to link with nonprofit partners. In Philadelphia, that student quoted above—and hundreds of others—benefitted from a program operated by the nonprofit Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania. The support—including small group Zoom discussions led by a teacher-coach, and summer internships in which high school students learn to serve in different roles, including leading virtual exercise classes for students in earlier grades—“boosts you up,” as one student put it.

The stakes are high, with major implications for racial and economic justice. According to the federal government, as of 2019, high school graduates, even if they don’t go on to college, earn over $8,000 a year more ($154 more a week) than students who don’t complete high school. It’s not just income, of course; health, life expectancy, civic participation, and the ability to avoid the criminal justice system are dramatically impacted by whether or not a student graduates from high school. School success matters—a lot. And reducing class and race inequality in the US requires having a public education system that directly remedies these gaps.

While media tend to pathologize public schools, there is some good news here. In fact, gaps were narrowing pre-pandemic, but racial and economic inequality persist. In 2018, for example, 89.1 percent of white students graduated nationally, compared to 79 percent of Black students.

Prince George’s County is home to the nation’s 20th-largest public school district. Its students are diverse: 55 percent are Black, 36 percent Latinx, four percent white, three percent Asian, 1.5 percent mixed-race, and 0.5 percent Native American. About 78.6 percent of high school students graduated in 2019, but one in five don’t complete high school. And the pandemic threatens to make this number worse.

A report written nearly a decade ago by the local community foundation emphasized why nonprofit community supports are so important in keeping students in school and reducing education disparities: “The causes and the effects of a high school dropout are not confined to the school, therefore the solutions to fixing the dropout problem can no longer be confined to the educational community.”

Supporting School Needs during COVID-19 in Prince George’s County

Bordering Washington, DC, and just 37 miles south of Baltimore, Prince George’s County, Maryland, has a reputation as one of the wealthiest Black enclaves in America. However, the suburbs around DC have seen low-income populations increase by 70 percent, in part because DC residents in several neighborhoods have been displaced due to gentrification. Many who left moved to Prince George’s County. Moreover, regardless of the county’s relatively affluent status, structural racism and economic inequality are key factors that have led Prince George’s to report more coronavirus cases and deaths than any other county in Maryland.

Last spring, as the pandemic created chaos and in-person learning ceased, the Maryland State Department of Education reached out to state-licensed childcare providers to provide childcare for essential workers. Joe’s Movement Emporium (Joe’s), a 20,000-square-foot studio arts facility in Prince George’s County providing afterschool and summer arts education and job training, responded to the call. The staff discussed whether or not they could safely provide in-person services and had a hunch that if they were going to survive during the pandemic, the team needed to find a way to do so. Staff were trained, personal protective equipment was purchased, procedures were tested, and the team provided daytime, in-person programming for a month for seven socially distant children.

Then came the summer. Drawing on its spring experience, Joe’s developed an in-person summer camp to serve families in need. When schools in Prince George’s County continued remote instruction in the fall, Joe’s enrolled 30 kids for an all-arts afterschool program. According to executive director Brooke Kidd, “Children are incredibly aware of the safety measures and have been amazing at wearing masks and following instructions, sometimes better than the adults.” While 30 is a lower number than the 80 young people it served before the pandemic, Joe’s is surviving—and now providing technical assistance to other nonprofits that need help with in-person safety measures and reopening procedures.

Working with surrounding schools, Joe’s has also been able to sustain an arts integration program during the pandemic by incorporating movement into online lesson plans serving four classrooms of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children. According to Kidd, the teachers and parents have marveled at how dance moves have increased student engagement in online learning. Student knowledge retention has improved with the coordinated dance moves, and the five-year-old students are now excited to log on.

Now that Prince George’s County schools are beginning to open for some in-person learning, Kidd is working with teachers to see how Joe’s can continue the integration of arts into academic lesson plans to support learning retention once schools are fully open. According to Mt. Rainer Elementary School Pre-K teacher Sharon Lo, “Learning and movement are interconnected. It enhances and boosts the child’s learning motivation and morale.”

Lo’s partner in the online learning environment, teaching artist Laura Schandelmeier, adds, “Exploring early literacy and math concepts through movement increases spatial awareness, attention span, comprehension, and overall enjoyment of learning. For example, when children dance, they are exploring the concept of composing and decomposing numbers visually, auditorily, and kinesthetically.”

Supporting School Needs during COVID-19 in DC

As noted above, many sections of the nation’s capital have gentrified—but not all. Over 40 percent of DC public school children, both those attending DC Public Schools (DCPS) and charters, are classified by the district’s government as being “at risk.” According to a 2019 report, as of the 2017–2018 school year, over 69 percent of DCPS students were eligible for free and reduced-price school meals, with many of these students concentrated in racially segregated areas of the capital, east of the Anacostia River.

Leo Givs, executive director of The Fishing School, a research-based afterschool and summer program (also known as an “out-of-school time,” or OST program), which focuses its programming in these communities, was working closely with principals of four DC Title I elementary schools —that is, schools at which 40 percent of students or more are from low-income families— prior to the pandemic. Because of existing relationships, as schools abruptly closed last spring, Givs and his team quickly implemented a distance learning program to support online instructional goals.

The Fishing School’s free year-round program is open to any student in first through fifth grade who attends a Title I eligible school in Washington, DC. Many of these students face educational barriers, including having unemployed or underemployed parents, unstable housing, and/or limited access to reliable transportation or computer technology. A survey of families served by The Fishing School revealed that 38 percent lacked internet access at home prior to the pandemic—a critical barrier in the shift to distance learning.

After quickly training and equipping 40 employees to telework and setting up an online learning system, The Fishing School reframed its traditional afterschool programming to create new options for teachers. While in the past they worked primarily from 3:00 to 6:00 pm, they are now nimble and can support schools during the day.

One new strategy is for teachers to identify students who are struggling in the online classroom environment and refer them to The Fishing School, where trained instructors group students into “pods” for additional academic support. The Fishing School has also added an individual and small group tutoring component during the week and on Saturdays. In a recent focus group, families told The Fishing School they particularly value the engaging and interactive instruction and extra enrichment their children receive because of benefits to overall mental health as well as learning.

One benefit of the online environment is geographic flexibility. As a federally funded 21st-century community learning center, Givs now has a waiver in place, so he is not bound to supporting the same four schools; instead, he can provide services for any student from any Title I school. Givs points out, “We can now leverage the distance learning platform we developed, and the investment made in retraining our staff, to serve more students who are in need of quality supplemental instruction.”

The Path Forward

Recently, public schools have begun to reopen for in-person instruction—although schools still look nothing like they did before the pandemic. In DC, fewer than 9,000 of 52,000 students came to class the first day, as most felt safer with instruction at home. In Prince George’s County, in-person instruction is currently slated to begin in April. What in-person instruction amid a pandemic will entail remains unclear; certainly, it will differ from pre-pandemic instruction in many ways. In the meantime, though, both school districts still need a range of wraparound supports, and once the pandemic subsides, it will be absolutely critical to help the millions of students who fell behind make up lost ground. In short, the work of groups like Joe’s and The Fishing School are unlikely to become less essential any time soon.

There are nonprofits, of course, that provide similar wraparound supports across the nation—although, as in DC and Prince George’s County, the demand for their services far outstrips the supply. The Afterschool Alliance is a critical leader at the national level. Its mission is to serve as a clearinghouse for afterschool program funding; state-by-state research on need, impact, and availability; and lists of providers for many states. One useful resource for nonprofits is the Alliance’s publication Community Learning Hubs: A Resource Guide, which showcases innovative nonprofit efforts across the country in response to COVID-19. The Afterschool Alliance website also links to statewide coordinating agencies and other local intermediaries that can connect schools with potential partners.

In 2020, many foundations redirected funding to emergency response services. Will they pivot now to sustain infrastructure for the long haul? Givs is hopeful that in 2021, with greater attention on long-term implications of learning loss, foundations will see and help fill this critical need. Other roles philanthropy can play include documenting successful partnerships; convening researchers, schools, and practitioners around strategies to support summer learning; and funding research on learning loss.

As Givs says, “The sector of out-of-school-time programs and providers can be broad and varied. I don’t think there is a deep understanding across the education ecosystem of the value that community-based nonprofits bring to the table. In DC, there are dozens of OST providers out there and almost none of us are at capacity right now. The pandemic-related challenges we face create an opportunity for school systems, funders, and community-based nonprofits across the country to collaborate on developing forward-thinking models of support that can empower students to succeed now and thrive post-pandemic.”