Back-to-school: The approach Congress should support

Back-to-school: The approach Congress should support
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Few issues cut deeper among parents, educators and the country than schools reopening, as we all grapple with clashing imperatives involving health, safety, learning and economic security and survival. This debate will continue because the decisions school system leaders are making now are temporary and subject to change as the pandemic ebbs and flows in states and communities. 

This moment gives Congress the opportunity to make a real difference with funding and flexible policy guidance that supports a redesigned approach to schooling that can help solve many of the problems kids, families and the country face during COVID-19 pandemic. 

The need for solutions is urgent. Millions of students are at risk of falling far behind academically, going hungry without the meals and snacks schools normally provide, and struggling without social and emotional learning supports, social interaction and the physical activity they need to be healthy and thrive.

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School system leaders know all that, of course, but faced with unprecedented challenges, many are choosing virtual online instruction and/or alternating the days and weeks each student physically attends school. Those decisions are being made with the goal of preventing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping students and teachers safe, but everyone agrees that many challenges will result. Among them, millions of parents will be without the safe, supervised, educational activities their children need when they aren’t physically in school — activities that engage children and give parents time to earn the paychecks their families rely on.

Experts warn that this fall, nearly 24 million workers with children between the ages of six and 14 will have no at-home child care option. Low-income families, in particular, will have few good options. Economic recovery will be impossible if we don’t solve this problem.

There is a solution: Out-of-school-time programs can step in, not just during the times when schools are traditionally closed, but during the times they will be closed due to an altered schedule. Afterschool, summer and before-school programs have long operated at the nexus of schools, families and communities, primarily serving low-income communities with quality programming that keeps kids safe, inspires them to learn and gives working families peace of mind. Working hand-in-hand with community-based organizations, these programs have an impressive track record of supporting at-risk students and are especially important to communities of color. They help address the inequities that hold so many young people back.

Parents have long counted on out-of-school-time programs to keep their children engaged in the afternoons, helping them with homework and connecting them to mentors. This has also given them the chance for extracurricular activities like planting gardens, cleaning parks, learning science and computer skills, pursuing their love of art and more, all under the watchful eyes of trained, caring adults. These support and enrichment activities that have long supplemented student learning in the afternoons can now help students during the day, when they aren’t physically in school. 

Many afterschool programs have already stepped up, expanding hours and services during the pandemic. When most schools closed early this spring, seven out of 10 afterschool providers continued serving students in some capacity. Across the country, they have been delivering meals to students, connecting families to social services, helping students with virtual learning, helping families bridge the digital divide, and much more. In Kansas, an afterschool program sent counselors to do distanced, front-porch visits with youth who were struggling. In Missouri, afterschool programs provided enrichment for students this summer to fill gaps as schools adopted staggered schedules. In Georgia, the Marietta school district is collaborating with Girls Inc. of Greater Atlanta to provide full day supervision and enrichment while schools are operating virtually, utilizing space in a local church.

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About one in five out-of-school-time programs opened physically this summer to serve children of essential workers and first responders, learning practical lessons about how to keep students engaged, active and learning safely. Those lessons are invaluable as we reopen schools this fall.

Now is the time to apply them. The Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) initiative has supported out-of-school-time programs for two decades. It is the only federal grant program dedicated to funding afterschool, before-school and summer learning centers. To support parents returning to work and help children continue learning during the COVID-19 emergency, we need to expand the 21st CCLC initiative. That’s why we are asking Congress for $6.2 billion in emergency funding, so these programs can serve more students and families in need and do what they are already being asked to do in many districts: provide safe out-of-school care and learning opportunities during the hours students would normally be in school, but aren’t now. Including these supplemental funds in the next coronavirus relief package would support smaller staff-student ratios and ensure program staff have the training, PPE, sick leave and support needed to safely provide this care.

We are also asking Congress to ensure federal funding streams for out-of-school-time programs, including 21st CCLC and the Child Care Development Block Grant, are flexible and can be utilized to support students when they are not at their school buildings; and to extend school meal flexibility and waivers so community-based-organizations can continue helping schools provide meals to the burgeoning number of students and families in need.

These steps would allow more students to get the education and support they need during the COVID-19 crisis. They would help weary parents and children yearning for face-to-face time with friends, teachers and mentors. They would help schools and our economy make the progress we need to recover. Perhaps most important of all, they would help many more children emerge from this crisis strong, resilient, hopeful and prepared to learn. 

Jodi Grant is executive director of the Afterschool Alliance.