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Op-Ed: Afterschool Programs Are a Critical Tool to Rebuild From COVID-19

The following op-ed is written by Tom Haggard, director of the Kentucky Out-of-School Alliance, a nonprofit public awareness and advocacy organization, and member of the Covington board of education.

As vaccine-laden trucks roll across the United States, it is impossible to miss the vital role that  afterschool and summer learning programs have played in our national response to the COVID 19 pandemic. With vaccine distribution now underway, Kentuckians are hopeful that the end is  near and life will eventually get back to normal—for us individually, our families, and especially  our children. 

As an educator and current Director of the Kentucky Out-of-School Alliance (KYOSA), a lesson  stands out for me: families across our Commonwealth, and across our country, rely on  hardworking, essential professionals to care for our children and youth and provide them with  meaningful and expanded learning opportunities. An extensive body of research has shown that  quality afterschool and summer learning programs help kids stay safe, get excited about  learning, develop important workforce skills, access nutritious meals, and stay physically active. 

Afterschool and summer learning programs have long provided supplemental education and  support to help close academic and opportunity gaps among students most in need. Before the  pandemic, many afterschool students were busy every afternoon building robots, learning how to play an instrument, receiving individualized academic support, and more.  

Since COVID-19 struck, many afterschool programs have taken on additional challenges, such as delivering meals to families, supporting distance learning, and helping students adapt to school systems' new schedules and methods. Through it all, programs have continued to find ways to connect  with students and families, often providing take-home kits or developing lesson plans that  involve everyday materials found around the home to keep everyone engaged in learning. 

To help stakeholders easily locate and stay up-to-date on all of the research and data that has  and continues to emerge on the state of afterschool and summer learning in Kentucky (including  school-age child care) over the past year, KYOSA has created a new research hub that brings  together all of this information in once central location. The hub provides easy access to: 

• A new interactive mapping tool, created by KYOSA and PolicyMap, with support from  the Charles S. Mott Foundation, that allows users to dive down and explore the state of  afterschool and summer learning in their local communities, including gaps in access,  funding, and community resources; 

• KYOSA’s recently released Out-of-School Time in Kentucky: Unmet Needs &  Opportunities for the Future report; which provides a close, pre-pandemic look at the state of afterschool and summer learning in Kentucky at the state, regional, and local  levels; 

 

• Findings from our partners at the Afterschool Alliance from their recent America After  3 PM and COVID-19 surveys; and 

• Reports and findings from other partners, such as the Prichard Committee, that  examine the impact COVID-19 has had issues such as learning loss and school-age child  care access. 

For the first time, we have a voluminous set of data in which to build the case for how  afterschool and summer learning will be critical tools as we recover and return to normal.  

Afterschool and summer learning programs in Kentucky serve 78,912 children and youth across  at least 1,579 sites, spread across 113 out of 120 counties. In addition, these programs provide  approximately 830 additional hours of academic support and enrichment per child annually— time when students are engaged with caring adult role models. Not coincidentally, fully 94% of  Kentucky parents were satisfied with their child's program. 

Unfortunately, that same survey found that nationally, for every child in an afterschool program,  the parents of three more were unable to find a program. Here in Kentucky it's even worse, for  every child in an afterschool program, four more are still looking for a program. 

In that same survey, respondents also recognized the role that afterschool and summer learning  programs play in supporting the economy. The great majority of parents with children in an  afterschool program – eighty percent in Kentucky – agreed that afterschool programs help them  keep their job or work more hours. And eighty-five percent of parents overall – with or without  children in afterschool – agreed that afterschool programs provide working parents peace of  mind. As the pandemic's grip on our economy loosens, that aspect of afterschool will be all the  more crucial, since it will allow parents to work in the afternoons and throughout the summer,  freed from worries about what their children, unsupervised, might be up to. 

Finally, an overwhelming majority of respondents – ninety-six percent – recognize that  afterschool programs provide a safe environment for children in the afternoons, echoing years  of research that underscores the value parents place on making sure their children are under  the watchful eyes of caring adults in the afternoons. 

In short, the data show that parents both recognize and value the role afterschool plays in  keeping children safe, inspiring them to learn, and helping parents, particularly working parents  have peace of mind about their children's afternoon hours. 

That’s the reason many Kentuckians recognize the need for the public funding that would make  it possible to address the critical shortage of affordable, high-quality afterschool and summer  learning programming. Fully eighty-three percent of survey respondents from our  Commonwealth said they supported public funding for programs that provide afterschool  opportunities.

Many of our children have experienced significant academic setbacks due to COVID-19. This  learning loss is exasperated in communities of color, communities experiencing persistent  poverty and communities isolated from internet connectivity. This is an issue that effects  families from Louisville to Pikeville, from Paducah to Covington. That's among the many reasons  we need to make sure families have easier access to afterschool and summer learning programs in the weeks, months and years to come.