When Covid struck, Baltimore’s community schools became a lifeline
The wraparound services that helped students and families survive the pandemic point to the kind of investment that, at scale, could help them prosper in better times [OP-ED]
Above: A community school coordinator prepares emergency supplies for families at the Calvin Rodwell Elementary/Middle School in northwest Baltimore. (Bernadette Lewis)
After schools shut down in March 2020, forcing children to stay home and take classes virtually, the challenges for families were crushing.
Baltimore City schools did what they could, handing out laptops and food en masse, but they could not address more serious economic pressures that were forcing families to make tough decisions, like whether to stay home with their children or to keep working.
Without an easily accessible safety net to support families, as the pandemic raged, more and more families faced dire circumstances, like hunger and eviction.
Fortunately, Baltimore had some infrastructure built-in to support families and children.
The city has 127 community schools that offer wraparound services like physical and mental health services and after-school programs, through partnerships with a host of area nonprofits, to support families’ and students’ academic and non-academic needs. They provided essential services for many.
We learned of one instance in which the parent of a pre-schooler who stopped working to stay at home with her four-year-old was unable to keep up with her bills and other day-to-day expenses.
Her situation became worse when she got an eviction notice from her landlord. But then the school’s community coordinator put her in touch with a program called Family Connections.
“They were able to help me when everyone else was just telling me to file an application while bills are piling up, and there’s nothing I can do but wait,” the parent explained.
Family Connections was able to help her deal with the eviction notice, came to her doorstep with food deliveries and also provided her with a $150 gift card during the holiday season.
Food and Uber Cards
Community schools, which opened in Baltimore in the 2000s, are not like conventional schools and are far more than physical buildings focused on academic learning.
They are lively, nurturing hubs that provide broad support to students, families and whole neighborhoods.
A community school coordinator oversees these partnerships, but they do much more by anticipating the needs of the school community, often tapping into relationships they have with families.
We asked several community school coordinators how they helped during the pandemic and found that they provided essential support to families, but this left us wondering:
Without a massive public investment in affordable housing, transportation and jobs, will community schools continue to be able to stand in to support families’ basic needs? They certainly showed they can.
One community school coordinator realized that families need not only money for food, but also access to transportation to get to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, etc.
By leveraging partnerships, the school was able to provide gift cards not just for food but for Uber.
Another challenge the coordinator faced was how to help homeless students, a pressing issue in a community where 42% of children are living below the poverty line.
She partnered with a local church, which provides food services, and they were able to distribute backpacks with supplies to homeless families.
Coordinators Stressed, Too
It hasn’t been easy. Community school coordinators have worked overtime during the pandemic – driving to deliver boxes of food, doing home visits to find out why students have not showed up to virtual school.
According to survey data from Baltimore City Schools, coordinators’ efforts to provide food and technology to families have increased exponentially.
According to survey data, the efforts by coordinators to provide food and technology to families have increased exponentially.
All of this makes their work essential, but challenging.
“This job, right now, is far removed from what most of us set out to do,” one coordinator said. “I think many of us are struggling with finding joy and reward in their work, and in many ways, our work has become more difficult, and the stakes have become higher.”
Coordinators have tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for kids.
One told us she has been trying to boost student engagement and interaction through virtual field trips. Since the beginning of the school year, students at her elementary school have visited over 25 different places virtually.
They have taken virtual field trips to places such as the American Visionary Arts Museum, Baltimore Museum of Industry, Reginald F. Lewis Museum and the Smithsonian.
As Baltimore looks toward the return to in-person school in the fall, the lessons from the city’s community schools are important.
Community schools are uniquely poised to address challenges families face, but the work is tough. Coordinators are “overloaded beyond words,” as one put it.
Families’ economic struggle will continue for some time. Community schools will keep supporting as much as they can, but, as research suggests, family income is closely tied to academic performance.
If we want to see academic performance improve and schools return to normal, we will have to do more than rely on community schools.
We will need a major investment in the economic stability of families so that they can better benefit from the partnerships and programs that community schools offer and thrive post-pandemic.
• Dr. Jessica T. Shiller is a professor of education at Towson University whose research is in urban education. Kayla Hunt recently graduated from Towson University with a BS in Mass Communications.