Community Schools: Keeping Us Connected
The first two weeks of March went on as any others. Our plans for ribbon cuttings at three new schools were underway, thanks to the AFT Innovation Fund — which had already helped us expand our community school efforts several years back. At those up-and-running schools, we were “business as usual,” with school-based pantries serving an average of 100 households a month and handing out more than 600 snacks to our students. Embedded mental health clinics were settling into a rhythm and providing counseling to students right in their school; our adult learning center was hosting free community classes; and we were running in-class and after-school programming.
Through LINK, our district referral system, school faculty continued to identify struggling students and families so our team could connect them to resources and services. All facets of our model were operating as intended, organizing the resources of the community around student success and making school the access point for services to meet the needs of the child, the parent, the family and the community.
However, within days of our first expansion event, alerts of closings and cancellations began to circulate in attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As the universe would have it, by Friday the 13th, all schools in Oneida and Herkimer counties were closed.
"Just as we saw prior to the pandemic, food insecurity has been an ever looming issue in our CCS communities, so devising a game plan to get our students fed while schools are closed was top priority."
Immediately, our Connected Community Schools (CCS) leadership put their heads together to formulate a plan of action. The following Monday started the overwhelming feeling that would be the connecting thread throughout this unprecedented crisis. One could easily assume that feeling; that buzzword, would be “worry” or “concern,” even “panic.” But no, the consistent feelings we all take home at the end of each day are best expressed in two words: “humbling” and “connection.”
Community Schools: Combatting Food Insecurity
Just as we saw prior to the pandemic, food insecurity has been an ever looming issue in our CCS communities, so devising a game plan to get our students fed while schools are closed was top priority. Within hours of the call for action, we had close to 100 people physically working alongside our team to respond to the ever growing need. With a team of volunteers, almost all of whom were teaching staff (along with many community partners), the Connected Community Schools crew spent the day working with school districts and coordinating our pantries. We called the effort our “marketplace.”
This newly expanded service was met with an unprecedented level of need. What once served a hundred families each month was now serving twice that in a single day. After only four hours, more than 1,000 families were served with approximately 12,000 pounds of food. To give some perspective, our holiday initiative handed out a comparable amount of food after a full week of serving families.
To date, our marketplace has distributed more than 300,000 pounds of food to thousands of students, families and community members across two counties. The team helped distribute meals at designated drop sites and kept the food pantries operating as well, meeting the ongoing need for food, hygiene products, diapers and household goods.
"To date, our marketplace has distributed more than 300,000 pounds of food to thousands of students, families and community members across two separate counties."
Included in food packages are fliers with contact information so users can reach out for further assistance if needed. Through partnerships with our local library we have also distributed books and other home educational materials. Assistance is not limited to families of students enrolled at those schools, and there are no eligibility qualifications or identification needed.
We implemented a delivery service for people unable to get to the pantry due to health conditions, lack of transportation or other circumstance beyond their control. With our mission to simply provide our communities with what they needed, we fulfilled delivery requests from hundreds of elderly, disabled or otherwise medically compromised individuals and families.
Many of our volunteers are school district faculty, further highlighting the sentiment that there is no such thing as being “just” a teacher. Three months ago, we believed this was a two week project, and we are now into month four. So to continue seeing this “connected community” show up for no other reason than to lend a helping hand, for months, with no end date in sight, while still having their own daily commitments and jobs, many of which are educating and engaging some of these same families, has been incredibly humbling.
Community Schools: Strengthening Local Connections
While schools and businesses are closed, the hearts of the community remain open.
We’ve been showered with continued love and support from our communities. In addition to the volunteer support, we’ve also had tremendous support from our Connected Schools Teachers Association, and several other community groups, businesses and organizations. CCS has been accepting and organizing the distribution of donations of all kinds. We are overcome with gratitude for the kindness and generosity of our community.
"Many of our volunteers are school district faculty, further highlighting the sentiment that there is no such thing as being “just” a teacher."
Even now, as most of the response team works remotely, awaiting the go-ahead to return to their physical posts, efforts continue to ensure the needs of our communities, and beyond, are met.
To stay connected with our communities in the new virtual world, the community response team has implemented a “connect line,” with a point person for each district for anyone in the community to contact. Acting as both a hotline and a “warmline,” individuals can call with immediate needs or crises, as well as questions and concerns. We’ve also implemented new virtual engagement programs, using GoogleClassroom to connect directly with students, and our Facebook page features live activity sessions to discuss changes in services, host and facilitate support groups, and stay connected with our community as a whole.
"While schools and businesses are closed, the hearts of the community remain open."
With COVID-19 infecting more than just our headlines, concern and uncertainty within the community have risen exponentially. With that rise, we are seeing an outpouring of folks who want to do what they can to help. Whether it’s being a friendly face to ease the worry in another, packing up food bags for families in need, making deliveries to those unable to pick up lunches, or our own executive director dressing up as Mr. Potato Head to relieve some of the anxiety and bring smiles to families who have come for the very first time to receive food assistance, their impact is immeasurable! In the same fashion, we’re seeing a proportionate rise in the need of those in our community, with no sign of slowing down.
The CCS team has no plans to slow down either. As data-driven as these initiatives can be, the takeaway from all of this is not in the numbers; it is that someone cared enough, thought enough, and was concerned enough to think about each child and family, each day, having what they need. Social distancing guidelines may keep us physically apart, but we will always remain a connected community.
Melissa Roys is the executive director of the Rome (N.Y.) Alliance for Education.
Reprinted with permission from AFT Voices.
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