Let’s not forget about afterschool programs

They must be viewed as necessity going forward

“I MISS MY FRIENDS.” “Sometimes my teacher doesn’t see me when I raise my hand.” “Coronavirus makes me sad.” “When this is over, I hope I can go with Mom to a store.”

Children across the Commonwealth are experiencing life in a new dimension. Their routines are disrupted; their school year suspended, their social interactions now impersonal. The uncertainty and fear of this moment has been traumatizing for them. Closed schools, social isolation, food scarcity, or parental unemployment have destabilized many kids’ support systems and may have lasting effects on their academic performance and mental health.

Before these children can get out from behind their screens and go back to school, all the ways we support their academic and social-emotional growth will have to be adapted to meet their needs and safety in unprecedented ways. Traditional school, out-of-school-time, and afterschool programs will need to evolve as they are called on to play a larger role in supporting parents, educators, and communities.

If anything, the virus has brought the indispensability of afterschool programs into stark relief. Afterschool programs are already providing emergency support services for mostly low-income families who have lost or are expected to lose their jobs, providing meals or food delivery, and providing virtual learning and social-emotional services to students.

Post pandemic afterschool will be equally crucial to healing. Families and kids depend on it, but so does the state’s economy. Quality afterschool programs provide parents with the security of knowing their children are occupied and safe while they finish their work days.

Research consistently shows that kids who participate in afterschool programs see significant gains in math test scores and work habits as well as dramatic reductions in behavioral problems. Additionally, studies found that afterschool programs not only help prevent students from engaging in risky behavior like drug misuse but give students the social and emotional skills to make good decisions later in life. Afterschool programs can also play an important role in encouraging physical activity and good dietary habits.

While Massachusetts will rely on afterschool programs to reopen the economy, this is more than just a supply and demand economic issue. Programs have to be safe. No one wants to risk their or their families’ health. It is essential to provide safe environments and to do so requires more space, more staff, and more supplies. Programs need access to cleaning supplies, gloves, thermometers, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, masks, and other materials that are in short supply.

Afterschool also will require resources to explore innovative ways to promote learning, mitigate learning loss, and provide social-emotional support to children. Indeed, these programs are in the best position to do so if they have sufficient support.

Before the pandemic hit, the unmet demand for afterschool services was disturbing. In Massachusetts, more than 320,000 students were stranded on waiting lists for available programs. Not surprisingly, demand is higher today than at any point since the creation of the 21stst Century Community Learning Centers program nearly two decades ago.

Moving forward, afterschool programs can do more to support families, but will need more support and modified program models. As of now, 59 percent of programs across the Commonwealth are unsure if their programs will be able to reopen after the pandemic. Many programs have furloughed staff and have not received any financial assistance. Programs which operate as emergency sites are running out of funds and willing staff.

Out of the rubble of this devastating pandemic, we must build a new foundation and reimagine how we deliver and measure learning. As Congress contemplates further stimulus packages, early ed, K-12 programs, and afterschool programs need to be prioritized. We also need a renewed commitment from the state to not only maintain these afterschool programs but expand them.

While Gov. Charlie Baker’s FY2021 budget adds $10 million to the 21st Century Community Learning trust fund, it will fall far short of what will be needed for recovery. And with the state now facing an estimated $8 billion deficit, that increase is in serious jeopardy. Going forward, afterschool should not be regarded as an option, or an extra, but as a fundamental component of a robust education system.

When this public health crisis is over, there will be no shortage of those offering assessments of where society did well and where systems failed the public, including in education. For now, the needs of students are immediate, and require organizations to shift resources and step up to meet the evolving challenges.

Meet the Author
The decisions made in education over the next few months will greatly impact the 2020-21 school year. It is therefore an opportunity for Massachusetts to adopt practices and policies that support students and families so we can emerge from this crisis strong, resilient, and hopeful.

Ardith Wieworka is the CEO of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, a statewide organization that seeks to increase access to high quality afterschool and summer learning programs.