Afterschool field provides crucial support for children, communities during coronavirus pandemic

Young boy holds up and shows off a bright-yellow, fuzzy pipe cleaner he formed into a hexagon shape.
Afterschool programs are keeping connected with kids even when they can't physically attend a program. Photo: Rick Smith

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, afterschool programs are working side by side with families, communities, school districts and public agencies to help children stay safe, well and nourished — and to ensure that they continue learning. Their front-line efforts are at the heart of community responses to COVID-19 and will be crucial to recovery.

As a field, afterschool programs serve more than 10.2 million young people across the country. These programs engage kids in hands-on projects, serve nourishing meals, and provide safe spaces for them to gather, play, and learn from peers and mentors. Afterschool programs also complement and expand on in-school learning, boosting access to academic enrichment for youth of all backgrounds. And, afterschool is often a lifeline for working families, as well as for children and teens facing homelessness and food insecurity.

What, then, can afterschool programs — America’s gathering places for kids after school and in the summer — do now to keep children, families and staff safe and provide help in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic? How can programs support kids, wherever they are, when so many schools and programs are physically closed, meal access is challenging and group gatherings are prohibited?

These questions are front and center for afterschool providers and for the 50 State Afterschool Network that supports them. Together, they are working with school partners, nonprofits, and local and state agencies to promote the health and well-being of children — and to promote creative, effective solutions.

Here are some examples:

Delivering virtual learning for kids and child care for first responders

After-School All-Stars (ASAS) is a free afterschool program that serves almost 91,000 kids in 13 states and 60 cities across the country. In response to COVID-19, ASAS has temporarily closed in-person centers and has moved learning experiences online. Virtual learning is designed to complement the efforts of school and district partners and to focus on the physical and mental well-being of students.

ASAS also has teamed up with Arnold Schwarzenegger and TikTok to raise funds for food assistance for families. TikTok has pledged $3 million and a match of up to $1 million in employee donations to help ASAS provide millions of meals to families across the U.S.

The After-School All-Stars chapter in Washington, D.C., is helping to run a child care program for first responders, medical professionals and essential government staff. The chapter is managing child care at Neval Thomas Elementary, a school that already was open for food distribution services. ASAS DC also has partnered with the EYL 365 Project to deliver afterschool art activities to youth online.

Surveying and supporting

Tennessee was still reeling from tornadoes that struck Nashville and the greater Middle Tennessee Region, when, on March 5, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Williamson County. The Tennessee Afterschool Network (TAN) developed an immediate and coordinated response. The network launched a statewide survey to find out how afterschool programs across the state were faring and what TAN could do to support them. Based on community input, the network has shared vital resources about Small Business Administration (SBA) economic assistance programs for nonprofits and developed comprehensive online COVID-19 resources on services and supports for young people, families and communities.

Promoting access and opportunity

Oregon Afterschool for Kids (OregonASK) is a collaboration of public and private organizations and community members who seek to support and expand quality learning opportunities for children, youth and families throughout Oregon.

State networks like OregonAsk are leveraging public and private-sector partnerships to assure that communities and families have access to health information and resources that support learning.
Photo: Courtesy of OregonASK

OregonASK is working with the Oregon Health Authority to share accurate and up-to-date information about COVID-19 with local communities. OregonASK is also focusing on ways to keep learning accessible as it goes virtual — particularly for Oregon families that are priced out of broadband or unlimited data plans. The network is sharing resources such as this listing from Common Sense Media of educational apps that don’t require Wi-Fi or unlimited data.

Supporting families, building capacity

In its work to ensure that youth in Utah have access to high-quality afterschool programs that keep them engaged, learning and safe, the Utah Afterschool Network (UAN) works closely with afterschool providers, K-12 educators, higher education leaders and state agencies.

These partnerships have been a key resource in UAN’s response to COVID-19. UAN created a comprehensive set of publicly available resources for Utah families (on child care, internet access, food/nutritional programs and home-based learning) and for afterschool providers (on curriculum ideas and online professional development and learning). To help providers strengthen capacity through virtual professional development, UAN is sharing course offerings from the UAN eLearning Institute, access to Sphero Edu programs for as many applicants as they can and online technical assistance for 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

Keeping connected with youth, delivering meals

Playing video games might not be the first thing that comes to mind for afterschool educators faced with closing center- and school-based programs. But a staff member at Youth Go in Neenah, Wisconsin, realized kids could use Minecraft to create, connect and collaborate on building an online version of the center. The idea has taken off.

Center staff are also staying in touch with students through Snapchat, Discord, Facebook and email.

In addition to continuing to connect with students online, the program also has set up weekly food sharing for families. Youth Go families can have food delivered at home or pick up meals at the center.

By sharing engaging activities that can be done at home, afterschool programs are nurturing children’s continued learning and well-being.
Photo: Rick Smith

Afterschool programs around the country are setting up supports for first responders. They’re partnering with public health agencies to distribute sound health information on COVID-19. They’re helping to safely deliver meals, providing supplies for at-home learning projects, promoting children’s health and well-being through physical exercise, and creating virtual “afterschool-to-go” packets for learning activities that can be done at home.

While responses vary by community, one thing binds all efforts together is a shared commitment to helping children learn, grow, stay safe and be well — wherever they are.