Three Ways DC Summer Programming Adapted to COVID-19 Could Inform K–12 Schools’ Responses this Fall
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When COVID-19 began to spread in early March, youth service agencies scrambled to close their schools and program centers to keep everyone safe. Then they quickly turned their programming into virtual content—all while ensuring families could meet their basic needs. The pandemic demanded rapid responses, so service providers developed innovative ways to meet young people’s needs this summer.
We spoke with several community organizations in Washington, DC, to learn about their creative approaches to summer programming that would address both their traditional challenges, summer learning loss and gun violence, and those exacerbated by the pandemic, such as access to food and the digital divide. As the school year gets into full swing, K–12 educators can apply these lessons to their own classrooms.
The importance of youth programming in DC
Before COVID-19, many summer camps functioned on a similar set of principles: interacting and engaging with young people to prevent the summer learning gap and expose youth to new and interesting activities, keeping them busy and safe.
In 2016, the founders of GOODProjects started a summer camp in response to a 54 percent spike in gun violence the previous summer. Reflecting on that first summer, co-founder Troye Bullock says, “We had a great camp, the community loved it. But most importantly, there were zero gun-related crimes in the neighborhood that we did the camp, so the goal that we set out to do—it actually happened.”
Exodus Treatment Center camp counselors serve youth in a different part of DC that shares the same challenges with summer gun violence. Exodus staff said the best part of their camp was being able to interact with and participate in activities alongside their campers, a bonding experience that ensured the young people knew they were valued and not alone. In underserved parts of the city, where families are often in crowded housing and economic opportunities are few, the feeling of isolation and despair is particularly high during the summer months and can lead to dangerous outcomes.
With the onset of COVID-19, social distancing made traditional in-person summer camp activities impossible. Youth program providers knew they needed to adapt quickly or risk the safety of their young people and their communities. As Pastor Norita Marshall of Exodus put it, “Exodus was already a pillar in the community, but when COVID-19 hit, Exodus became an epicenter—acting as a safe haven for residents and never closing our doors.”
How DC community organizations adapted youth programming this summer
Though summer learning loss and gun violence are consistent priorities for youth service providers inside and outside of schools, COVID-19 forced an entirely new framework for their summer plans.
DC community-based organizations GOODProjects, Exodus Treatment Center, Brothas Huddle, YAAY Me, and Sasha Bruce all have summer camps that serve young people living in public housing and other underserved parts of the city.
GOODProjects had one week to reapply for a grant that would enable them to continue summer programming in a virtual format. Sasha Bruce had only a few weeks to adapt their fully planned summer youth employment program to a virtual setting. And Brotha’s Huddle, which typically conducts most of their youth engagement through group skills-building activities and community service, switched to one-on-one check-ins.
Here are three ways these organizations overcame obstacles like accessing and implementing virtual technology and providing meals to the youth of their communities this summer.
Providing basic needs
These youth programming organizations all pivoted their efforts within the first weeks of DC’s stay-at-home orders, finding ways to safely distribute food, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment that were in short supply. Making sure those basic needs were met helped families feel they were not alone and ensured they would continue engaging with service providers through the pandemic.
Access to technology and reliable internet also became more important than ever. These community-based organizations prioritized support, from providing information about broadband packages, to applying for funding for computers and tablets, to helping young people set up email accounts.
At the same time, organizations revised the structure of their camps and tested which virtual platforms would work best for activities and participant preferences. Though platforms such as Zoom or Google Hangouts feel more personal because of video options, some young people expressed a preference for conference calls because they did not need to be connected to Wi-Fi and could take the calls on the go, away from their crowded homes, which often lack privacy.
Program providers embraced virtual programming as a learning opportunity for their participants. They view graphic design, creating websites, setting up email accounts, and meeting on online platforms as practical, lifelong skills in an increasingly digital world.
- Checking in with youth
Program providers knew that if their participants struggled to sit through in-person school and activities, doing so in front of a computer would be nearly impossible. Before programming began, providers took a few key steps to understand young people’s circumstances during the pandemic. First, they collected and confirmed contact information for youth and their families. They also conducted home visits to “lay eyes” on their participants in person and drop off supplies and program materials. Providers told us this face-to-face interaction was critical to ensuring families did not feel forgotten and that they had a support and a lifeline when needed. Drop-offs also allowed program facilitators to collect finished projects and assignments to help keep kids on track.
- Keeping it engaging for young people
Before COVID-19, in-person activities like field trips and physical games broke up the days and weeks so kids always had something to look forward to. To keep programming fresh and engaging during the pandemic, some programs offered online wellness classes, provided end-of-the-week incentives such as gift cards to restaurants or clothing stores for completing a full week successfully, and dropped off equipment like soccer balls and art materials to kids’ homes. Engaging whole families together in activities like online cooking classes or snack-and-paint activities also kept young people interested and involved.
These DC youth programming organizations all agreed that schools should carry these best practices forward into the school year. K–12 educators can focus on helping people meet their basic needs such as food, supplies, and technology. Showing up in person when possible, even from a safe distance with masks, helps young people and families know they are being heard and not forgotten. And although virtual platforms can be powerful learning opportunities, it’s important to meet youth where there are at in terms of both skills and preferences.