March 13th 2020 schools across Philadelphia begin to close their doors due to Covid-19; what was supposed to be a 2 week process turned into months of twists, turns and changes. These changes forced not only schools to figure out another way to reach the youth, but also afterschool programs, and that way was through technology. However, the thought was much simpler than the actual process. Covid-19 exposed the reality that students in low income areas lacked the necessary resources and tools in order to make just the first step of the process work. Surveys to parents, meetings and town halls were held to figure out how to get laptops and internet access to all students. In April 2020 a plan was put into motion for students to get the laptops that they needed by May 2020 so that educating our youth could continue.
Throughout this time Southwest CDC’s afterschool team, lead by directors Shaketia Sills and Jackie Simmons, also began reinventing the wheels to figure out a plan to continue connecting with the 72 children enrolled in Patterson’s kindergarten thru 5th grade after school program. Throughout the month of April the after school team reached out to all of the parents in the program to assist with resources, as well as making sure they were aware that Southwest CDC would have its 1st ever virtual afterschool program. May to June Southwest CDC provided 3 hours of engaging virtual programming from the hours of 3pm to 6pm. The program provided kids with a space to connect with one another while providing them with academics, wellness lessons, games, and arts and crafts. In the summer Southwest CDC also provided 6 weeks of virtual structured activities, and fun and games to 36 students in Philadelphia grades k-6.
Virtually connecting with all youth was a tremendous challenge for schools as well as after school programs, so changes had to be made for the upcoming school year. Out of school times (OST)/ Office of children and families (OFC) partnered with the school district to create safe spaces inside community centers, recreation centers, public housing, and libraries for the students called access centers. These spaces are kept thoroughly clean and follow the safety operating procedures and guidelines. Access centers were established to assist the most vulnerable youth in Philadelphia grades k-6 from the hours of 8am – 4pm to supervise digital learning while providing structured and unstructured activities to students on their breaks. Students who attend access centers not only receive technical assistance but they also participate in literacy activities, positive action lessons, receive breakfast, lunch, and a snack, participate in creative challenges, culminating events, art and crafts and so much more.
This journey for Southwest CDC’s afterschool program and summer camp has been challenging, but there are even greater success stories. Southwest CDC was able to build partnerships with Parks and recreation, and teachers while assisting youth and families by providing continuous quality programming to reach our most vulnerable youth in Philadelphia throughout Covid-19. Although there were times we could not be in the same physical space or we had to keep safe spacing while in the centers, we figured out a way to keep the smiles on the faces for over 102 youth throughout the year by keeping them engaged and letting them know we are here for them. The smiles on these student’s faces and the appreciation of families is the reason we continue striving to do what is necessary to continue reaching our youth.