With many schools online only, Salvation Army makes sure no child is forgotten
By: David Ibata and Brad Rowland
Salvation Army leaders like Amanda Nunez are determined to help the children of their communities as many school systems – unable to bring kids together physically due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – begin the new academic year offering only virtual instruction.
For families unable to afford up-to-date computers, or lacking the high-speed Internet service that’s an absolute must for livestreamed lessons and video conferencing, that’s a huge obstacle.
“No one is being left behind,” said Nunez, director of The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club in Lawton, Oklahoma. “COVID-19 is not going to stop us from meeting our mission, and it won’t stop our kids from being successful in their education. We’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure our kids are being safely taken care of.”
According to the Washington Post, a 2018 study by a coalition of civil rights and education groups reported nearly 17 million children living in homes without high-speed internet, and more than 7 million, without computers.
Students in the South and in rural communities, and Black, Latino and Native American households, were disproportionately represented among the disconnected. In Mississippi and Arkansas, about 40 percent of young people lacked access to high-speed internet.
“The need is there in the community. I think we’re all concerned about learning loss,” said Melissa Brown, executive director of The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Oklahoma.
Salvation Army units that historically offered after-school programming this fall are scrambling to extend hours, hire additional staff and acquire personal protective gear so they can be open, safely, through the school day.
“We’re uniquely positioned to help,” said Major Timothy Gilliam, territorial youth secretary. “It’s a huge emphasis from Commissioners Willis and Barbara Howell: Anyone who has a facility should open them up to school kids.”
“A lot of our Boys & Girls Clubs are up and running with tutoring and computers so kids can get access to their curriculum,” Major Gilliam said. “Some units have converted their gymnasiums into study areas, putting up tables with separation for social distancing so children can spread out their books and do their homework.
“They have staff on hand to help tutor. And whatever computers they have – some have computer labs already, some are setting up makeshift labs – they’re making them available.”
The Salvation Army in Jackson, Mississippi, has started a day care program with virtual learning for up to 50 young people. Laurel, Mississippi, opened its facility for any child needing Internet access and has officers and volunteers serving as tutors. New Orleans is opening a technology center and starting an after-school program.
Lawton’s Boys & Girls Club is now open from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for kids in all-day distance learning. It also offers a traditional after-school program from 2 to 7 p.m. for families who opted for the school district’s blended or traditional classroom programs.
“This is generally a low-income community, and families simply need to go to work,” Nunez said. “With school not in a traditional setting, where do the children go all day? We wanted to give them something where we can monitor their educational progress and bridge the gap.”
The three Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs in Atlanta, Georgia, similarly offered an after-school program; but with the Atlanta Public Schools’ decision to begin the school year online only, the clubs are now open to 120 students total from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
“We’re using the same number of staff, but slightly increased their hours,” said Joshua Dickerson, executive director of The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Atlanta. The immediate need now is acquiring more Chromebooks. The clubs need 75 laptops in all, or 25 per location.
Two weeks into the program, Dickerson said, “we’ve learned it takes time for everyone to adapt. It’s new for the teachers, the students and the parents. The only way this is going to work is for all of us to work together, for the benefit of the children, to be part of the solution.”
In the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, all students of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools started the school year virtually, and the Union County schools are operating with a hybrid model of virtual and classroom learning.
The Salvation Army operates four Boys & Girls Clubs in Mecklenburg County and two in Union County, and each is open during the day to help as many as 50 children attend school online.
“Our Boys & Girls Clubs are there to do whatever it takes to ensure children are successful,” said Major Todd Mason, area commander in Charlotte. Virtual learning, he said, “presents a challenge for many families we serve. For some, there is difficulty accessing reliable Internet connectivity or technology. For others, parental work schedules make it difficult for students to get the support they need.”
“At all of our club sites, we’ve upgraded our technology capacity and WiFi to ensure our kids have what they need,” Major Mason said. “Due to current statewide restrictions on groups, we are operating at about half the usual capacity, and we’ve added additional staff at each site to ensure our staff-to-student ratios are appropriate.”
Every student has a different schedule; some start as early as 8 a.m. Children get meals, snacks, encouragement and support through the day.
“Our staff spends the day making sure each child is completing their assignments and attending their required online classes,” Major Mason said.
All this happens in a safe environment, with temperature checks upon arrival and in the afternoon, daily questions to parents about potential COVID-19 exposure, face masks required for students and staff, and social distancing during activities.
The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club in Oklahoma City, open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. school days since Aug. 24, similarly follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols for face masks, temperature screenings and social distancing. Up to 60 children attend at no charge to their families; a local food bank provides meals and snacks.
“We just want to make sure that the kids in our community have a safe place during the pandemic,” Oklahoma’s Brown said. “We can be a big part of their support system. Our kids our laughing. They’re learning. They seem to feel at home, or at least very comfortable, in our clubs. Given what the whole word is dealing with, we can at least offer that when they walk in our doors.”