Community Schools on Reopening in the Face of Ongoing Pandemic

With the start of the new school year just around the corner, Community School leaders share their concerns about fall reopening plans and how the community can meet students’ and parents’ immediate needs.

Aug. 19, 2021 – While school supplies have been fully stocked in stores since mid-July and summer plans are beginning to wind down, there are many questions at the top of minds: Should we be returning to full in-person schooling? Are we ready to have students back in schools? Are schools equipped to have students back in the building?

Reopening plans are looking different and moving at different paces across the country, but most school systems in the National Capital Area are looking at some version of a return to in-person/hybrid, five-days-per-week instruction. Currently, all public schools in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia must at least offer in-person instruction to students, although final decisions for reopening plans (including whether there will be virtual learning options offered) rest with the school boards.

United Way of the National Capital Area recognizes the far-too-long academic disparities in our community and is committed to reducing inequities and improving academic outcomes for young people. Using a Community Schools model, we bring together a network of partners to provide services and resources that address the academic and non-academic needs of ALICE students and their families.

Through this program, comprehensive and coordinated services are provided in targeted schools in each of the regions we serve. “[We work] with the most high-risk children and scholars [who have] many barriers …” explains Vickie Freeman, the Community School coordinator at H.D. Woodson High School in Washington, DC.

With the ongoing global pandemic still in full view, increasing changes to the CDC’s COVID-19 health guidance and the rise of the Delta variant, many school leaders feel stuck between the hope and desire for students to return to some form of normalcy and more hands-on learning opportunities in school, and the real concerns around reopening schools while circumstances continue to change rapidly and basic needs still have not been met.

“Without that face-to-face, it is hard to be effective … it has been very difficult to reach the students [and] reach out to parents,” shares Freeman. “I personally am very skeptical about going back. Our kids are very physical. They want to hug on you, and they hug on each other. I don’t think the masks are going to work,” she adds.

Between normalizing mask-wearing for students and addressing issues that existed far before the pandemic began—such as struggling to get students’ vaccination records, small office spaces, a lack of open space throughout school buildings and poor ventilation systems—there is immense concern as to whether some schools are even equipped to welcome back students.

“I don’t know if we’re going to stay open that’s a question mark,” shares Jasper Williams, the Community School case manager for both Kelly Miller Middle School and H.D. Woodson High School in Washington, DC. “We have to find out how we can stay safe. I know we want the kids to get back in school so we could be hands on [but] we still have to find a way to keep us safe. That’s really my main concern.”

The decisions around whether schools fully reopen in-person or not is only part of a greater concern. Members of many DC communities are still struggling to have their basic needs—needs that have been exponentially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—met.

“Right now, survival is more of a priority than education for our families,” shares Freeman. She and her team at H.D. Woodson have packed backpacks with snacks, drinks and gift cards to give to students to incentivize them to go to school and to support them and their families. “It does a lot. It may be [their] only meal,” she explains.

In some cases, parents have called the school to say that their child couldn’t attend because they don’t have socks, shoes or have them in the wrong size. Lack of access to proper nourishment is also a primary reason for why some students are not able to make it to school.

“Basic needs are going to be an ongoing thing. It is ongoing with or without the pandemic and with the pandemic it has doubled,” says Freeman.

Local community leaders like Freeman and Williams know that these struggles are far from over. “To make more of a bigger impact, [we need] growth,” shares Williams. “It’s going to be a day-to-day process,” adds Freeman.

There is a long road ahead but the opportunity to change lives is why this work matters. It is hard, but it is critical.

Join the movement to be a part of the solution and make an impact in your community. Learn more about United Way NCA’s Community Schools here.

About United Way of the National Capital Area

United Way of the National Capital Area improves the health, education and economic opportunity of every person in the National Capital community. United Way NCA has been improving lives by creating measurable impact in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for more than 45 years. In 2020, United Way NCA was among 384 organizations across the United States to receive a generous transformational investment from novelist and venture philanthropist, MacKenzie Scott. For more information about United Way of the National Capital Area, visit UnitedWayNCA.org.

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