What Lies Ahead? – The Role of OST Workers During These Pandemic Times
July 2, 2020
School closures and quarantine have brought profound change to the delivery strategy for school day and out-of-school time (OST) programs. For many school districts, a chasm opened, and they have had to scramble to learn new ways to reach children and families. OST programs and workers, whose strength has always been their relationships with youth, families, and communities, stepped up to help families connect to technology, distribute student computers, deliver new virtual programming, provide homework help online, and transform programs into start-up food pantries. OST programs also had to figure out how to stay connected with their staff, provide online professional development and training, and sometimes help staff find new employment or social services – amid furloughs and layoffs of colleagues and their own childcare and health concerns.
Often children come into an afterschool program space and immediately ask, “What’s next? What are we doing in the program today? What lies ahead?” We could never have anticipated how challenging it would be today to answer those questions. We are living in a world where it is very hard to know how programs will look one month in the future. So much has changed! Yet, there has been amazing consistency from the OST workforce, who have leveraged their strengths to care for the social and emotional health of the children and youth served in their programs throughout the ongoing pandemic.
As part of one of the Forum for Youth Investment’s Readiness Projects, a team is exploring how to do a national comprehensive study on the workforce. As an early part of that effort, researchers from the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at Wellesley College had the opportunity to talk with 21 participants in the NIOST National Afterschool Matters Fellowship and the Minnesota NorthStar Youth Worker Fellowship about their experiences during the pandemic as they continued to serve their program children and families. Though they represent a small sample of the overall workforce, the OST professionals in the Fellowship were purposefully selected because of their longevity and broad experiences in the field. Interviewees represented a wide array of organizations including national youth-serving organizations, local government departments, libraries, faith-based ministries, organizations serving homeless youth, and other private youth-serving organizations.
These youth professionals spoke about how they have quickly pivoted to meet the current needs. In response to a question regarding change (short- and long-term) in the face of the pandemic, two of the interviewees commented:
I think the biggest part that’s changed is that there’s a lot more uncertainty to navigate…and just figuring out how to change our work to meet what our funders are wanting in addition to obviously what the kids and families are needing.
We’ve had to figure out really quickly how to move our services to be as virtual as possible in a way that still maintains relationship building and how to do that when there are very real barriers to accessing technology among the people that we work with.
Crisis often seeds innovation and reveals organization and individual strengths. The traditional strengths of the OST workforce – flexibility, creativity, and a focus on social and emotional learning – positioned workers to be able to step in and provide support and stability as learning and relationships shifted to virtual platforms. Two interviewees offered:
We have pretty great staff and they’ve been putting together a huge drive of best practices for virtual learning, how to use zoom with elementary kids, class dojo tutorials, research…our staff has just been full steam ahead with all of that work.
We’re trying to offer social and emotional support as opposed to academic support because I think that's what a lot of the kids and families need, like mindfulness and relaxation techniques, so we’re working on doing that for the kids and their families.
All who were interviewed worry about the future. There are predictable tangible challenges ahead, such as obtaining personal protective equipment needed to re-open safely and re-hiring staff or training new staff. Many programs are experiencing fiscal uncertainty. One interviewee noted that the economic effects of the pandemic have taken “away some funding which is always hard because when it goes away, it can take four times as long” to return to a stable funding formula. Several program leaders expressed concern about the ramifications for youth of isolation and separation from friends and extended family, and that existing disparities in education and access to resources may continue to increase. Many workers also expressed optimism pointing to the innovative and creative ways OST workers are shifting program delivery strategies, expanding their skills, and breaking new ground:
I think we’re also kind of learning about how many opportunities are available to us virtually and what we might be able to do to expand our reach. And the services we provide to participants by integrating online and digital with our in-person services, I think that's really exciting.
I think there’s an opportunity for us to grow and utilize this moment to highlight what we do.
Through this snapshot of interviews, we see an adaptive, dedicated, and skilled workforce ready to support continued positive learning experiences for children and families. Broader surveys of the field are needed to learn more about the current situation and concerns of the field, like the one currently being conducted by the Afterschool Alliance.
Have we seen a broader appreciation of the role OST workers serve in their communities? Will schools and community youth programs partner differently going forward? Will OST programs be able to seize this opportunity to re-imagine the ways youth development and social and emotional learning can be delivered, taking advantage of what they've learned during the crisis?
While the challenges are indeed significant and it is too early to tell whether or how America will rise to meet them, there is no doubt that with great challenge comes great opportunity. Now is the time to make sure that OST programs and people – and the possibilities they create for children, youth, and families – are understood to be an important priority and necessary investment.
The National Afterschool Matters Fellowship is a one-year professional development and leadership training program for mid-career OST, education, and youth development professionals.