Back to school: what we’ve learned, how we’re moving forward

Mary E. Walsh
Mary E. Walsh

It’s September and going back to school – in-person or on Zoom – is an obstacle course of trying to keep students safe, keep them learning, and keep them connected to their school communities and to essential services and supports, as City Connects does. 

“The earth is moving under everyone right now,” Mary Walsh, the Executive Director of City Connects says. “But what we’ve seen is the value of having the City Connects system. It creates a record for every child, so we know the kids, and we know what their strengths and needs are.” 

Back in March, when the pandemic hit, City Connects moved its system of integrated student support online. City Connects’ Coordinators ran groups, sat in on classes, and reached out to families.

During late spring and summer, City Connects staff took stock and began preparing for the fall. Now, the City Connects system is stronger and more responsive to the pandemic’s demands and to the needs of students and families. 

Here are some of the things City Connects has been learning and doing. 

“We were able to more clearly see the impact of the services that kids had and then lost because of the pandemic,” Walsh says. “Especially services like dental vans that brought dental care right to schools. Even the New York Times is reporting on this. There are some services we could move online, but we’re being reminded how important in-school services like dentistry are.” 

Now City Connects is working to reconnect kids and families to dental care and other school-based services. 

“Because we know the kids so well, we’ve kept them connected to services and replaced the ones they’ve lost. There was one little boy that we couldn’t find, but our coordinator reached out and learned he’d been placed in foster care the Friday before schools closed. So he lost his family and his school at the same time. When the coordinator called the foster family’s home, that boy was so excited to talk to her. It was his first connection to what he’d lost.” 

“Thanks to Zoom, we have gotten to know families better. When we were in schools, there were working parents we rarely saw. But on Zoom we could see students in their home settings and connect with their parents. We always made telephone calls, but Zoom raises relationships a notch. So we’re seeing how technology is increasing family engagement.” 

“The pandemic also forced us to develop the best online training we’ve ever had for City Connects. We created four modules, two for teachers and two for counselors. We re-engineered them to take advantage of the online format. And we shared them with teachers and counselors both in City Connects and beyond it. We had participants from across Massachusetts and some from outside the country. They could earn continuing education credits, and we made access to the modules free. It was our gift during this horrible COVID time.” 

“Moving forward,” Walsh says, “there are two huge challenges. One is the grief and loss that everyone is experiencing, the loss of connection, even when it’s just losing the opportunity to have lunch with a friend. The second challenge is worry and concern about the future and its unpredictability. We’re all in between these two places of dealing with loss and dealing with anxiety.” 

City Connects is, nonetheless, moving ahead. “We are doing the same work but in different ways,” Walsh explains. 

Instead of waiting until October to conduct whole class reviews, coordinators are doing early reviews now, identifying students with the highest needs and helping them. Coordinators are also assessing other children’s strengths and needs and responding accordingly. As Walsh says, “We’ve all experienced a traumatic event, but not everyone is traumatized.” 

Coordinators are expanding their work with community partners, the different organizations that provide support and enrichment for students. 

“We’re doing a quick read of our community partners. Some have gone out of business. Some are there but operating in a different way. So our coordinators are putting together a new compendium of community partners. And we’re talking to funders about supporting some of these organizations.” 

City Connects is also moving forward with its expansion in Ireland, where students are going back to school in-person. Staff are being trained now so that they can start work at the end of this month. 

And on the technology front, City Connects will build on its newly enhanced online training modules. And coordinators will continue to use Zoom to do more family engagement.

A looming concern for City Connects and for all of education is how badly the pandemic will hurt school funding as well as funding for social-emotional learning and student support. But Walsh is hopeful about the future. 

“City Connects is in a strong position to help students. We are in a strong position to share what we do with schools outside our network,” she says. 

“The pandemic has shone a light on the need to have a system to address students’ needs. More people are understanding that. You can’t just have random acts of student support. You have to have a system.”

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