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It’s the largest school district in the country and at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s why all eyes are on the New York City Department of Education’s next move.

What will happen to more than a million public-school students in the fall of 2020? Will schooling resume as normal? Be fully remote? A blended model, in which students attend school on certain days and learn from home on others?

We simply don’t know.

What we do know is the field of youth services cannot afford to wait for answers before preparing for what’s to come. Our field serves approximately half of the city’s children in after-school and summer programs, providing critical supports that contribute to academic, social, emotional and physical development. Research has shown time and again how critical such programs are, with outcomes that range from academic achievement and developing resilience to readiness for college and careers.

Our new reality will require different skills, approaches and structures to properly provide youth development opportunities. Below are five ways in which the field of youth services can begin to prepare for what lies ahead.

  1. Double down on social-emotional learning (SEL). This is what our field does best. The social and emotional needs of children have never been greater, and it’s time to prepare ourselves for everything from an increased need to redirect behavior the longer that children are out of their usual routines to the impact of trauma from illness, loss and economic strain on families. Isolation by itself is linked to developmental setbacks for children, and much of what they will need in the fall will be social and emotional support. Youth-serving agencies should ensure that staff are well-prepared both to (re)build children’s social-emotional skills and to address more serious mental health issues by offering high-quality staff training on SEL, hiring professional staff such as social workers and building referral systems with partners able to handle more severe situations.
  1. Build an understanding of formative assessments and instructional differentiation. We will likely face what some researchers have dubbed the “COVID-slide,”similar to summer learning loss, in which students may retain only 70 percent of their 2019-20 reading progress and anywhere from half to all of their academic growth in math from the last year. Students’ academic experiences since mid-March have varied significantly, often due to differing levels of access to technology and other resources. While schools will bear most of this burden, youth-services providers can help students recover from learning loss by learning more about how to assess children’s academic progress to better tailor homework help, tutoring and enrichment activities to their needs. Furthermore, youth-serving agencies and schools might find new ways to work together to support academic growth, leveraging each partner’s expertise to assign work and keep youth engaged in learning through fun, hands-on activities.
  1. Provide extra training for staff as they prepare to deliver virtual programs. While our field has masterfully responded with virtual after-school programs that have included everything from group dance parties to one-on-one tutoring in online breakout rooms, we can now use lessons learned to design virtual programs for the fall, should we need them. Staff should be trained in leading online activities, including how to ensure accessibility for youth of all abilities, manage behavior remotely and maximize tools such as Google Classroom and Zoom. Leaders should prepare to create policies that address key questions: Who is responsible for supervising children during remote activities? How do we ensure privacy? What does it mean to maintain equity and inclusion in a virtual program? What are the expectations of staff? Codifying these policies now will lead to a much smoother start-up in the fall.
  1. Plan for a variety of schedules. If schools are open only to some students each day, there will be groups of students who will have to stay home — but this may not be viable when families go back to work. Under this scenario, youth-services providers may be tapped to provide child care and space for remote learning on days when students aren’t in school. Alternatively, schools may need more staff during the day to accommodate smaller group sizes, and youth-services providers may be asked to provide staff. Getting ready for a range of realities now will allow youth-serving organizations to hit the ground running — and potentially take advantage of new funding and partnership opportunities.
  1. Survey and analyze your workforce. Now is the time to consider your staffing needs. If operations are virtual in the fall, how many staff will be needed? What skills and competencies will they need to have? (Hint: They are not likely the same skills and competencies you needed last year.) For staff who are in college, what will their fall semester look like? What about staff who are immunocompromised? Without asking personal (or illegal!) questions of staff, opening a line of communication will generate helpful dialogue as you sort out staffing for the fall.

As we prepare to support the youth-services field in these areas, we invite youth development practitioners, funders, educators, parents and others to contact us with ideas, questions and concerns so we can best help the field prepare for whatever we’ll need to ensure that children have the vital services and connections they deserve in September.

This story about planning for the fall semester in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Alison Overseth is CEO of the Partnership for After School Education (PASE).

Jen Siaca Curry is CEO of Change Impact and PASE’s consulting operations director.

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