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Back to School 2021: Early Lessons and Challenges

The 2021-2022 school year is well underway! New York City schools are back in-person, full-time, as are BronxWorks Children & Youth after-school programs. While there is a renewed sense of normalcy, myriad new challenges are present in this second full year of school in the COVID-19 world. BronxWorks continues to make adjustments to operate safely within the parameters of the ongoing recovery. This month we asked members of the BronxWorks Children & Youth leadership team to talk about how the year started and what they’ve already learned.

For starters – how are things going?

Dina BrownDina Brown, Program Director, Middle School Programs

It’s been very interesting for us. We’re seeing record-breaking enrollment numbers compared to previous years, even pre-COVID years. Rate of participation is very high. Students are here and they’re staying. Parents want them in the program. The students want to socialize outside of their normal academic day, be outside, have fun, and interact with other humans. They also appreciate the academic support that we provide, which is important as some have fallen behind during COVID. We have daily health screenings for everyone who comes in and safety monitors for each classroom. We allow some time for students to step out of the room, and take a breath in their own space.

Kiesha RobertsKiesha Roberts, Assistant Department Director, Cornerstone Programs

Our students love being in the after-school program, many of them don’t want to leave at the end of the day. I think that is because the program offers so much. We recognize that COVID is still a major factor, but we do our best to keep the students safe while providing engaging activities. Thanks to the support of our funders, we are offering a lot of STEM activities, including experiments, robotics, and programming. Students are always asking what is coming up and they are excited for the return of the Halloween party. Of course, we practice social distancing in our centers, which means we must limit the number of kids we can enroll. Everyone who comes into the center must follow safety protocols. We also had to restructure some activities to have them individualized.

Aremni FranciscoAremni Francisco, Program Director, Jill Chaifetz Transfer School

Students are definitely excited to be back in the building. They’ve missed social interactions with each other and staff. For those that are experiencing difficulties, we have mental health clinicians on site. We’re able to get students back into therapy sessions as some students weren’t comfortable doing telehealth. Events have to be downsized and socially distanced, but we’re happy to offer them again. Naturally, we screen and monitor all visitors to the school.

Two children sit at a table writing and drawing.

Can you tell us about some early challenges the programs are experiencing?

Melinda BarrMelinda Barr, Assistant Department Director, Early Child Care and Elementary Education

Programs for elementary age children are struggling with enrollment. Some families have expressed concern about the rise of the COVID Delta variant, some have left the area, and others no longer need the after-school service. It’s also different this year as we had to restructure our drop-off and pick-up procedures due to social distancing guidelines. Parents are not allowed to enter and visit the program. Pre-COVID, parents could visit and engage in the classroom while helping their child transition from one setting to the other. Parent engagement is key to our programs, and now we work hard to engage the parents using a variety of methods, including sharing pictures of their work and other projects online.

A man and a middle-school aged child talk to each other. The child is working on an art project.

What are your goals for your programs this year? Are they different than in previous years?

Kiesha:

My goals have evolved. One of my main goals was to bring more technology to the programs, and when COVID hit, it kind of forced us in that direction. Now, I want to refocus on the social-emotional piece. I want the students and the Cornerstone team to be more sensitive in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We want to help our participants and staff be more understanding, have more respect for each other and for themselves, and learn acceptance of and interest in diversity.

Dina:

Our goals are always to provide academic and social-emotional support for our students. Our centers need to be a safe and open space for our students to feel comfortable enough to share their feelings, think through solutions, and build leadership skills. Particularly for this year, we really want to understand where our kids are at and meet them there. Personally, I plan to meet with every student by organizing small weekly meetings with different groups. I really want to have a conversation with each of them so they know that BronxWorks is here to support them in whatever they need.

Aremni:

Our goals vary heavily from student to student, but we want to strongly focus on the mental health aspect for all of our participants. Remote learning was not conducive for working on the social-emotional aspect, and now that we’re back to full-time in-person programming, we want to resume that piece heavily. We want to bring back groups where students can get together with an advisor and bond together. We also want to address the needs of our families. We know many families are food insecure, and this year we want to make sure we can continue to assist them or provide referrals.

Melinda:

Our goal for this year is ensuring that our early childhood programs are fully enrolled and that children’s needs are being met socially, emotionally, and academically. We strive to prepare the students to develop in a changing environment. The goal is for children to leave our care ready for the next stage of their development. To transition successfully, children need confidence in their own abilities, and readiness to pursue new adventures.

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