Five ideas to support kids as they go back to school during COVID-19

Learning pods, virtual classrooms, and school PPE, oh my! As the school bell rings and students get ready to head back to class, our school supply lists might look a little different this year. But whether our kids will be walking into campus or logging onto Zoom on day one, one thing remains consistent: we want them to have a great start to the school year!

Right now, we’re seeing lots of ioby leaders working hard to provide the tools and technology that families need to ensure the learning doesn’t stop during COVID-19. They’re being flexible, creative, and responsive to the needs of their communities. Many are deepening the work they’re already doing as they pivot their projects, and we know their work is making a difference!

We’ve rounded up a few examples of how some folks are rising to the challenge of helping students and families prepare for the new school year. Many of these projects are still fundraising, and we invite you to learn more about how they’re empowering students and their families–and investing in a better future for us all.

Back to school project idea #1, Tech Access: Closing the Digital Divide in 38126

To help slow the spread of the virus, schools across the country are closing their buildings and implementing different forms of technology-based classroom instruction. Whether students will attend 100% of their classes online or access curriculum through a hybrid virtual/in-person model, many of them will need access to technology to complete their lessons. 

And while school districts are doing the best they can to provide students with the supplies they need, in many cases, it won’t be enough. In addition to computers, virtual school often requires students to have wifi access, headphones, and other types of technology. Many families have to pay out of pocket for these items, and the costs can add up. School shutdowns have already widened the existing “digital divide,” which means vulnerable students whose families can’t afford the necessary technology are at risk of falling behind.

So Nykesha C., leader of the Memphis-based project Closing the Digital Divide in 38126, is stepping up to help. “The COVID-19 outbreak has shown tremendous digital disparities in communities around the U.S. when it comes to income, education, and access to technology,” she says. “Memphis neighborhoods in the 38126 zip-code are no exception in the digital divide.” Working on behalf of Mustard Seed, a local nonprofit, she and her neighbors are fundraising to provide laptops to students–and in doing so, they’re helping open doors for their community’s youngest minds.

Back to school project idea #2, Re-imagining the Schoolyard: YDH IDEA Learning Pod Co-Op

With some school buildings shuttered, many parents are looking for ways to provide their children with the structure, safety, and reliability that comes with an in-person education experience. One idea that’s gaining traction is the concept of a learning pod: a small group of children who meet in a central location and receive instruction from a teacher or parent. (Think of it as a mini-school–but with more flexibility!)

Learning pods come with lots of benefits for students and their families. Within them, students can interact with their peers and receive in-person instruction and feedback from a teacher. And since the pod typically contains 10 or fewer students, they allow families to limit their children’s potential exposure to the virus. In addition, the learning pod exists outside of a traditional school building, which means classes can take place anywhere–even outdoors!

In Cleveland, The YDH IDEA Learning Pod Co-Op is working to provide a safe, equitable, and high-quality education option for young children. Their leader, Yolanda H., knows all about the many benefits of giving children access to outdoor greenspaces, so she’s fundraising to create a learning pod that gets kids outside and puts the focus on their emotional and social well-being. Not only will this help improve their lives in the present, but it’s an investment in their future, too. Their outdoor learning model “will teach kids how to practice environmental stewardship and challenge them to think critically about solutions to problems that impact the community at large,” she says.

Back to school project idea #3, Lifting Up Students and Their Families: COVID-19 Low-Income Family Support

In addition to facing an increased risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, Black and Brown Americans have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s economic fallout. That means many families are facing income loss and as a result are unable to access basic needs. Government relief efforts often exclude many folks who are marginalized, which leaves the already vulnerable, such as undocumented workers or families experiencing homeless, with few options for financial help.

Fortunately, neighbors are stepping in to support one another. In Boulder, Colorado, The New Horizons Community Preschool serves some of the area’s most vulnerable populations. The neighbor leaders behind their COVID-19 Low-Income Family Support project know that their community is suffering right now, so they’re making it their mission to ensure their students’ families are taken care of. They know that the families themselves are most aware of their own needs, so their goal is to provide support in the form of direct cash assistance. In this way, they can uplift their neighbors and, as leader Isolde S. puts it, “help them figure out how to survive this crisis – and to rebuild their lives once it is the right time.”

Neighbors in Buffalo, NY, crowdfunded to help kids learn through experiences—like this experiment with water an oil—virtually.

Back to school project idea #4, Virtual Fieldtrips: Community Field Experiences with Firsthand Learning

You know that spark of curiosity you feel when you discover something fascinating? It’s a feeling of wonder; a desire to dig deeper into a problem or a phenomenon, and it can lead you down a path of meaningful learning. That’s exactly what inquiry-based learning is all about!

In this type of instruction, lessons are centered around real-world problems that students explore or work to solve. In addition to providing content knowledge, these types of firsthand learning experiences also help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will last them a lifetime.

The folks behind Firsthand Learning, a New York-based nonprofit, know just how powerful and engaging firsthand learning experiences can be. Their goal is to empower students by providing them with “opportunities to figure things out for themselves, to believe in the analytical abilities of their own minds, and to connect with the world around them,” say their leaders. What better way to learn something than to experience it for yourself?

“The global pandemic has created urgency to develop leaders and the next generation of environmental stewards,” they add. “We are working to create high-quality firsthand learning resources for our youth.” They’re currently fundraising to bring their learning experiences online so their students can continue to learn, grow, and stay curious.

Back to school project idea #5, Moving Extracurricular Classes Online: Online Learning with Allergic to Salad 

For many students, the highlight of the school day comes when they get the chance to explore their creative sides and bond with like-minded peers. These opportunities are often found in classes and extracurricular activities involving the arts: band, choir, orchestra, theater, visual arts, culinary arts, and so many others. 

Sadly, when education budgets are cut (and they’re cut quite frequently), arts programs are often the first to go–even though here’s robust evidence to show that students receive many benefits from participating in them. Many extracurricular programs were already on the chopping block before COVID-19, and the pandemic only made their futures more uncertain.

Knowing how important these experiences are for students, the NYC-based culinary education program Allergic to Salad is currently crowdfunding with ioby to move their curriculum online. Genevieve H. and her fellow project leaders are working to provide low-cost cooking classes to their existing NY City public school sites in addition to offering classes in the greater NYC area. “We will be working with each site to put together recipes and lessons to fit the needs of the communities we serve,” she says. “In addition, food and cooking literature is a vital life-skill that prepares students of all ages to care for themselves and the community. Empowering the youth among us is the key to creating a sustainable future for everyone.” 

No matter what your back-to-school plan is this year, it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together! There may be lots of unknowns ahead of us, but we can help our country’s youth by showing them how to be flexible, how to stay resilient, and how to lend a helping hand.

Have an idea for how to support students, families, or teachers in your community? Share it with us! We’d love to be a part of your journey to get good done in your neighborhood.