Navigating Back-to-School Challenges Recap

On Monday, Sept. 28, OCF’s donor community came together to listen to four panelists who discussed the implications for different student populations and age groups and highlight the need for collaboration among schools, community-based nonprofit organizations, and families themselves. They focused on children and youth who are most likely to be affected by gaps in opportunity. In many cases, these are the children who are most likely to be adversely impacted by the pandemic. The theme of partnership and collaboration was strong throughout the discussion. Panelists also emphasized finding new ways to partner and bring new partners to the table. The message was clear: these are our kids and we need to work together to address these challenges.

Mary Louise McClintock, OCF Senior Education Strategy and Policy Advisor, moderated the discussion which also included Mark Witty, Superintendent, Baker School District (Baker City), Becca Tatum, School-age Child Task Force Lead, Better Together Central Oregon (Redmond), Pilar Palos, Manager of Youth and Family Services, Hacienda Community Development Corporation (Portland) and Lisa Harnisch, Executive Director, Marion & Polk Early Learning Hub Inc. (Salem).

How are you working to meet the needs of those who are most adversely impacted?

Lisa: One way is that the partnership with community partners is absolutely critical to meet the needs of those most impacted. Relief nurseries, preschool programs, behavioral health, etc. We work with those organizations to help provide different opportunities to help support families. We work to meet needs with a trauma informed and behavioral health lens.

Mark: Teachers are being paid to teach, but we also need to meet the unique needs of children due to the pandemic. Technology is a huge barrier for the schools. Baker City hired a bilingual tech person who goes into the homes to help families manage their technology. Access to education is so much more difficult online. They also have an evening tech support available for families to access after school hours.

What opportunities do you see in this time to address issues that we’ve seen for a while? How can we use this time to make opportunities better?

Mark: Community partners and schools are already looking at how they can meet needs moving forward. We are continuing to meet families where they’re at. We’ve adapted rapidly to meet needs in this environment. There will be more opportunities and demand to meet families where they want to be. Available education platforms, along with technology that’s been created and implemented and where they want to plug and play. Students will have much more access to individualization for their needs. We were heading that way, but there’s been a much more rapid shift. The question will be…do we try to lock in revenue pieces to support school districts or do we support a hybrid model that supports schools and individual platforms? This is a big policy question that isn’t easily answered. We have been forced to learn a tremendous amount rapidly.

Becca-The work being done is a both/and. What are the immediate actionable pieces where we support children? I am seeing some exciting change, too. Our 0-5 year-old providers are taking in older kids. Hundreds of children are being assisted. We are also seeing communities stretched beyond what they normally do. Long term: we need to see policy changes. How do we generate more revenue from taxes for childcare? We will need to explore workforce partnerships. If schools can’t be open in the same way, my employees can’t go to work. We need to create structures that support the family unit.  We traditionally thought of sectors as separate. Those walls are broken. How do we rebuild them in ways that meet our needs? We need capacity building.  Maybe if we invest now in some capacity to support parents at work, it will be a long-term solution. There are opportunities. It’s overwhelming, but also invigorating to be part of the solution.

Lisa: I see opportunities from a childcare and education point of view in relation to the work force. They need to be seen more intrinsically together and we need to find ways to support both. Childcare has often been underfunded and held separately. It hasn’t been viewed as an extension of education preparation. This is an opportunity to shift that focus, so the 0-5 space is supported. It is such a critical space for learning and development. How do we provide the needs and make it accessible for all families?

We also a huge need for technology access. If you don’t have WiFi, you’re left out of the loop. Families who don’t speak English as their first language are not having their needs met. We need to provide more programming and support to help families who need more tech education.

We’ve been hearing concern from our partners around the state (teachers, school districts, nonprofits): Impacts of the stress of this time on children and families, the need for training and support for emotional wellness and impacts of stress on children. How are you addressing that?

Pilar: Social and emotional learning, as well as health and well-being have always been at the center of our programs. When developing all of our programming, we have conversations with families. We work to understand their cultures and how these issues should be addressed to be most helpful for them. How can the adults in the program adapt? How do we have these conversations in a way that makes an impact? Behavior problems are a response to the trauma youth are experiencing. How are families feeling now that they have experienced the fires as well? We’re not going to ask folks to do what we normally would. We are meeting them where they are. We are making space for youth to say what they want and need. How can we be trauma responsive? Are we changing paperwork to be shorter and easier so we can lower the barriers to help others get services? Are youth tired of being online? My team watches for the alarms and works to address the real issues.

Mark-School counselors are working overtime to try to meet the needs. It’s so much more difficult to get our eyes on the kids. PE is moving to focus on social and emotional health to have those interactions with students.  This will exasperate the situation around equity.

Learning Pods/Learning Labs; How are they showing up in your communities? This could widen the opportunity gap.

Lisa-This is a large issue. How do we help support our children in their learning? Families are coming together to offer private pods. Communities are also coming together. Nonprofits, church leaders, housing environments are working together to support children in neighborhoods. Cornerstone housing in Salem is a community that has 65 children living there. The community and elementary school in the area have developed cohorts that are being launched in their community room. We are working with parents at night in what we’re calling family cafes to provide adult learning on how they can support the needs of their children. The community is providing through much-needed education resources and funding streams. We are seeing other examples where childcare entities are connecting with school partners and offering onsite childcare with focus of helping with homework and support.

Becca: The one thing about learning pods is they will not be a long-term option for many families with varying incomes. The feeling is that they can handle it for a few months. Now is the time for some real cross-sector investment on what could be next for learning pods. We will most likely need to change what is working in the short term and consider the changes in paid leave status/returning to work, etc. As school districts return to work, what happens for staff who return? Now is the time for creative thinking about next steps. We’ll need to consider timing/steps/money for licensing and cohort requirements. Next steps will be working to build capacity with our community organizations so they can have staff and facilities that are licensed to do the work.

How can we ensure that high school students are getting appropriate supervision while not in school?

Mark: The reality is that the system is stretched to the maximum. We do not have the capacity to meet those needs. The current solution is to engage coaches and athletic systems to make contact and support those high school and junior high students. Using that labor force to engage with those kids. But not every kid is involved in sports, so we are not meeting all kids where they’re at.  

Pilar: Youth want to be more independent and treated as adults. We are working to provide more programming for high school. Hopefully, we can be in person in the spring.

Are you seeing morale issues in public schools with teachers and students? Are best practices being developed?

Mark: We are trying to adjust and manage as much as we can. We need to continue supporting everyone with time and resources. (challenging at this time). Acknowledge communicate, listen and try solve issues as much as we can.


To view a collection of resources that can further illuminate the unusual difficulties and opportunities of the 2020-21 school year, please click here.