To cope with the effects of the coronavirus on students and families in Minnesota, City Connects Coordinators started with the basics: making sure families had access to food, housing, and emergency child care.
Coordinators made phone calls and sent out surveys to assess needs. They worked with restaurants that were donating free lunches. They worked with Sheridan Story, a local nonprofit organization, that sends food home in backpacks.
“At this point, all our families can access food,” Laurie Acker, Minnesota’s City Connects Program Manager, says.
But that was just step one.
Step two was becoming Internet-ready. Coordinators made sure that students had Internet access and laptops. That meant connecting families to free municipal WiFi or helping them sign up for low-cost plans so their children could participate in distance learning. One coordinator also set up a website with resources for families. Coordinators are also organizing social emotional skills groups online and creating related videos. And they are running Student Support Team meetings (where individual students’ needs are reviewed) online.
“It’s a stressful time, and being isolated makes it harder,” Acker says. “That’s why it’s really important for the coordinators to call parents and students and connect with them as often as they can. As parents are being asked to do much more, stress levels are rising.
“And a number of our parents are and have been unemployed. So we sent out information about how to apply for unemployment insurance. And if parents need help, because they don’t speak English or because of something else, coordinators are helping them fill out the application.”
Despite the stress, this is also a time of great resourcefulness.
When laptops for students ran out, Acker began looking for funding to buy more. A local funder referred her to the Minnesota Council on Foundations. The council was indeed giving out emergency grants, but the charter schools Acker was trying to help could not apply directly, they would need a community intermediary.
So Acker called a City Connects community partner and asked if they could submit the grant application. That partner, Urban Ventures, said yes.
“It’s all about relationships and not being afraid to call and ask for something,” Acker says.
To cover the Catholic schools where City Connects operates, Acker reached out to a City Connects funder, the GHR Foundation, which is distributing microgrants in four areas: Internet access, computer equipment, whole-school cleaning, and child care.
So far, five schools have received $1,825 each to help with their technology needs: St. Peter Claver Catholic School, Ascension Catholic School, St. John Paul II Catholic School, St. Pascal Baylon Regional Catholic School, and Community of Saints Regional Catholic School.
Acker knows that every day will bring more challenges. Families will struggle. Schools will try to pull off the seemingly impossible. There’s already a looming obstacle for the City Connects Catholic schools in Minnesota: They rely on springtime galas for fundraising. Now those galas will be virtual and may raise much less money.
Acker doesn’t know what all the solutions for the coming challenges will be, but she knows she and her team will keep working on them.
“That’s why I try to distinguish between nighttime thinking and daytime thinking,” she says. “It’s literally and figuratively darker at night, but hopefully, you know, the next day will be better.”