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A year like no other: supporting students during COVID-19

City Year Virtual Learning

Student support during the pandemic

Over the past year, the impact of COVID-19 on communities and schools across the country has resulted in vastly different responses to the disruption and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

For City Year, this has meant leaning into our strengths of flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness as we work to support our partner schools, teachers and students in ways that make sense to them—whether our service happens in schools, virtually or through a combination of the two approaches. In reality, many aspects of service look different at each of our 29 U.S. sites.

Instead of giving students high-fives when they arrive to school in the morning, City Year AmeriCorps members are more likely to greet students online with a welcoming activity or, if serving in person, guide them safely from the school bus to their classroom in socially distanced groups. Most individual and small-group tutoring now happens online as does enrichment programming—all services that used to be provided in person, in schools. City Year AmeriCorps training and ongoing support includes new tools and techniques to reach students virtually. And the organization expanded our mental health resources for AmeriCorps members and staff, recognizing the toll the pandemic is taking on many of us.

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Check out this City Year video about how learning looks different than it did a year ago.

Nine out of 10 City Year partner principals and partner teachers surveyed said that City Year AmeriCorps members have supported the engagement and participation of their students and agree that City Year has helped their schools transition to new learning approaches during the pandemic.

“I was apprehensive about having someone else in the classroom and I can honestly say it’s been one of the highlights of my career.  My City Year partner makes learning fun for students, loves the students like I do, and is truly a support for all of us.  I could not be happier!”

-City Year Partner Teacher

Bringing care, consistency and capacity

No matter where or how service is happening, however, City Year’s priorities remain the same.

City Year AmeriCorps members are focused on:

  • Building consistent, caring and positive relationships with students, every day
  • Partnering with teachers to ensure students are engaged in their learning
  • Bringing a sense of joy and belonging to the school experience

City Year’s services, which emphasize both social-emotional and academic growth, means we’ve been able to provide crucial mental health and holistic well-being supports that students and teachers need right now—and that are essential for learning to take place.

“We hear feedback from our partner teachers like, `it’s nice not to have to go through this by myself and it’s not just me trying to do everything,” said Macey McKinney, managing director of impact for City Year Sacramento. “Having another adult who is paying attention and helping out makes a big difference.”

By adding human capacity, City Year is helping teachers and schools create additional “touchpoints” for students—even when that contact is happening online, says City Year Sacramento Executive Director Jeff Owen.

“This extra support and the consistent presence of an AmeriCorps member is an added benefit for part-time substitute and brand-new teachers,” Owen says, “who are learning classroom management or going classroom to classroom, which all come with challenges that are exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Before COVID-19, City Year AmeriCorps members might work with a small group of students who are falling behind based on test scores and grades, for example. “Now, teachers are using the flexibility of distance learning to enroll all of their students” in small-group tutoring, Owen said, so more students are receiving personalized support.

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In Los Angeles, City Year AmeriCorps members have provided a “lifeline” to students during a challenging time.

COVID-19 has also enabled City Year to be more creative in finding ways to reach and engage students—hosting “office hours” where students can check in with AmeriCorps members; holding online raffles that celebrate consistent attendance; and offering fun mini-lessons on Instagram, for example.

Addressing basic needs first

In the early days of the pandemic, many of City Year’s 3,000 AmeriCorps members made calls home, checking in on families, encouraging students to attend online classes and making sure they had laptops and internet access. Many students served by City Year continue to struggle with the lack of a quiet place to study and broadband issues that make distance learning more challenging.

Food insecurity is another factor for students who rely on school lunches and snacks.

“No one can use the cafeteria, so our corps members have helped to deliver breakfast and lunch so that students can eat right in the classroom,” said Dyrell Clark, City Year Columbia Director of Impact who helps to manage the school-based teams. “They also distribute take-home dinners for students to bring home at the end of the day.”

A top priority has been the physical safety of AmeriCorps members, teachers and students, especially in places that offer in person or hybrid approaches. In some sites, such as Baton Rouge and Columbia, all AmeriCorps members are serving in schools, working both with students who attend school in person and those who have chosen to learn from home.

For in-person service, corps members were provided with extra protective gear at the start of the school year and in some schools, were granted additional dedicated space so that they could safety physically distance while serving students.

Sites have also leaned into another asset to help them navigate the pandemic: a hard-won resilience, earned by previous tragedies, including Hurricane Katrina that inspired the founding of City Year Baton Rouge.

“The culture of Baton Rouge—and Louisiana in general—is a culture of love, warmth, family and hospitality, says Annmarie Valentin, donor relations manager for City Year Baton Rouge. “The community is known for coming together in joy and in difficult times to support one another.”

Don’t forget the joy

Even in less-than-ideal circumstances, City Year AmeriCorps members know that connecting with students every day, helping them to re-engage with their learning, and infusing each school day with moments of humor and fun are three important things they can provide, whether in person or in an online setting.

It’s taken longer for corps members to build trust with students this year, but the pandemic has also pushed them to find new ways to connect. One school launched a student-run news cast every morning that is supported by City Year AmeriCorps members. In some schools, City Year AmeriCorps members have embraced themes and planned online events and virtual games to celebrate each one, such as World Kindness Day and Latino Heritage Month.

Site staff have also worked hard provided moments of levity and relaxation for their AmeriCorps members, making sure they don’t experience burn out as they support students and teachers. Sites have hosted events such as outdoor movie screenings and online gift giving around the holidays to mark special occasions and bring teams together in safe ways and to boost positive mental well-being.

“The pandemic has taken a mental and emotional toll on everyone, said Annmarie Valentin.

“Caring adults in school communities are struggling with their own personal anxieties and work schedules. AmeriCorps members are young adults and they need support just as their students do.”

Learn more about City Year service during COVID-19.

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