How City Connects Coordinators are working through the pandemic

Whether their schools are open for in-person learning or open for virtual learning, City Connects Coordinators are working to get the right services to the right child at the right time. 

In their hands, the core City Connects model remains the same, but it is being delivered in increasingly creative and flexible ways. 

One example is Zuleika Andrade, who started working as a coordinator in January. 

“Then,” she says, “Covid happened.” 

So Andrade and her school — Mission Grammar School, a Catholic school in Boston’s Roxbury community – pivoted from in-person to online education. Andrade worked with students virtually running lunch-bunch and snack groups, providing individualized support to students, and helping families navigate access to resources. 

“I was calling families and checking in to see what parents needed now that school was closed, because school provides so much, not just education, but meals, child care, social-emotional connections.”

Last month, the school reopened for in-person instruction with a new, safety-conscious look: in addition to new classrooms, a new lab, and a new ventilation system, there are signs with reminders of where to stand to be socially distant.

Andrade has been a key part of making it safe for Mission Grammar’s scholars, as students are called, to be back. Every morning, she is on thermometer duty, taking scholars’ temperatures when they’re dropped off at school. She asks screening questions about Covid symptoms, Covid exposure, and any recent travel. And although she is at school, she keeps her services virtual as much as possible to lower the risk of being a Covid spreader. 

Andrade has also set up a new weekly review template that teachers use to record scholars’ bright spots and strengths as well as any challenges they may face. It’s a kind of early warning system that is helping Andrade learn about and address children’s issues quickly. The information from the weekly review template will also go into the whole class reviews that coordinators do, the process of sitting down with teachers to discuss scholars’ strengths and needs so that coordinators can connect students to services, supports, and enrichment programs. 

Another key task for Andrade is keeping the school connected to its community partners. Strong Women, Strong Girls will do virtual mentoring. And while Andrade can no longer take scholars to the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences for dental services, representatives from the college will do a Zoom presentation. 

The toughest part of her work, Andrade says, is supporting scholars emotions during challenge moments.

“It’s not the norm, but there are a handful of scholars who are having a really hard time. It’s been difficult for everyone to be home for six months and then come back to school, even for the adults. Wearing a mask all day is hard for some scholars. Younger scholars who moved from K1 to K2 and had to give up naps are really tired. So we’re figuring out whether to move recess or add nap times. Or do they just need a break or a drink of water?” 

The goal is to clearly understand each scholar and provide each one with customized support.

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Justin Tsouros is in his second year of being a City Connects Coordinator at Boston’s Paul A. Dever Elementary School. But in January, he took time off for reconstructive ankle surgery. He came back in March, and days later, Covid forced Boston’s public schools to close. 

Tsouros spent the spring and summer maintaining contact with families. Because 91 percent of students in his school are “high needs” – meaning they face economic disadvantages – Tsouros wanted to ensure that students were safe and that their basic needs — including food, clothing, and housing – were being met. 

“We had to create a whole new plan because we weren’t able to kind of provide the direct care that we used to be able to face to face,” Tsouros says. 

“I was doing a lot of check-ins with students who were newcomers to the United States. Often our school is the first stop for a child coming to the U.S. We’re their first educational experience and connection.

“One trend we noticed last year is that a lot of fathers have been bringing their children here, and the plan is for mom to come later. So I had to step in and work with some kids because they missed their moms.” 

Over the summer, Tsouros and other City Connects colleagues worked on compiling a resource guide for coordinators, school staff, and parents. The guide includes resources for clothing, immigration services, and mental health services. 

“We tried to make the guide as comprehensive as possible, thinking about all of the different things that might come up and that families might have to deal with.” 

This fall, the Dever School opened remotely. Depending on rates of Covid infections in Boston, it could shift later this month to a hybrid model for children with the highest needs. 

For now, Tsouros plans to conduct whole class reviews by sitting in on Zoom classes so he can see, at least virtually, how students are doing. He’ll share these observations when he meets with teachers. 

Tsouros is also dealing with community partners that have shut down. One is Boston Youth Sanctuary which has paused its programming because of the pandemic. The organization had worked with children who experienced extensive trauma. Tsouros is also working out a new plan with Cradles to Crayons, which donates clothes and backpacks full of school supplies. 

Most important of all, Tsouros is eager to maintain his connections to students. 

“I want them to view me as an equal. And while I do have to hold them to certain responsibilities, I want them to feel that connection of being equal to me so that they can come to me with problems. Even if it’s a gripe with a teacher or the school. I want to help them reflect and think outside the box. I want to foster their individual growth and learning.” 

This is hard to do while the school is remote, but Tsouros is working with his school colleagues to come up with creative solutions. What he most wants to do is go back to school and collaborate in-person with his colleagues to rebuild his school. 

“I’m not going to be able to pop into classrooms. Kids aren’t going to be able to come to me for check-ins. But we’re going to figure out as a whole school how to address that – while following all the health guidelines and keeping children safe.”

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