STORIES FROM THE FIELD
The Covid-19 Conversations: Supporting Expanded Learning Staff During a Pandemic
By Jen Taylor
Suppose you’re a working parent or guardian, dropping off your school-age child as part of your morning commute, and picking up your child at the end of the day. Chances are, you know the coordinators and staff at that “after-school” program fairly well. You see them day after day, year after year, and you’re likely to talk with them regularly about your kid’s day, moods, and overall well-being. Meanwhile, outside of a few events like parent-teacher conferences, you and the regular classroom teacher or school administrator may rarely communicate.
Programs that schools conduct outside of the “normal instructional day schedule” – including early morning and late afternoon programs, and anything held during intersession, summer, or vacation are known as “expanded learning.” They have often been overlooked as a potential factor for helping children develop. But that is changing, because a vast body of research is emerging, documenting the contribution of expanded learning programs to positive student outcomes, including academic achievement, attendance, and engagement in learning.1 These programs can also bring schools and communities together, by engaging students in activities that complement regular learning activities and involve neighboring partners.
One important way that these before-, after-, and between-school programs can help children is with social and emotional learning. An engaged, hands-on, student-centered program can help determine whether a student feels accepted, welcomed, and encouraged to thrive, or isolated and ignored.
Jen Taylor is an Education Programs Consultant within the California Department of Education, specializing in expanded learning for Sacramento County and the surrounding counties. Jen works with administrators throughout this region, consulting with them on building quality programs. She is also a special education community advocate. She joined the Compassionate Systems Master Practitioners course in 2020. In this article, she describes her project to support expanded learning administrators and staff during the Covid-19 pandemic.
School lockdowns present particular challenges to expanded learning programs. During the Covid-19 pandemic, essential workers with children were particularly likely to need the type of support expanded learning provides, and these were extremely difficult to fulfill through electronic media. In this story, Jen describes the groups she conducted for expanded learning administrators, so they could help each other manage the crisis and rise to the occasion.
– Peter Senge and Art Kleiner
Photo: Nick Fewings
The Spring, Fall, and Winter of 2020 was a roller coaster of changes. As we headed into the second school year of Covid-19, there were many new policies, procedures, and relief funding in our state, one after another. The pivots and sharp shifts affected every aspect of daily life for everyone connected to schools. It was also a time of intense thoughts and feelings, one after the other, rising rapidly to the top of mind and plummeting down or spiraling around. The realities were affecting all of us: the day-to-day duties of supporting students, the pressure to keep in-person programs open while having staff quarantined and or ill from COVID-19, and the constant, looming fear of getting COVID-19 ourselves.
In December 2020, during a Zoom meeting with school district leaders present, one of the veterans – a person who has been a constant, calming presence in our regional system – broke down in front of everyone. Vulnerable, her voice shook; weariness and tension were tearing her apart.
Watching this happen, I felt myself floating to the tip of the iceberg. My thoughts took me from this event to the underlying basic human needs which were not being fully met in this crisis. As I saw it, the root mission of my job was to further the social and emotional well-being of the individual leaders in the complex educational system around us. If we could not help our leaders in the system, how will they help create the space for students to thrive and recover? On the spot in that Zoom call, I said I would hold a space every other week for everyone to connect. It would be a space with no formal agenda, where we could check in with our peers and help each other navigate the complexity of this moment.
Luckily, I have great fellow team members. They’re very supportive; they don’t balk and say, “Wait, we need to discuss this first.” So, I went with it and said, “We’re doing this!” Emails and invitations went out, Zoom links were set up, and within two weeks, our first connection space met.
Photo: Hannah Busing
The personal and professional background
About 15 years earlier, I began a series of conscious lifestyle changes – eating healthier and better physical activity–that I now see as part of my development in compassionate systems leadership. In order to show up in a space for others, we must also take care of ourselves and our well-being. This development continued more recently as I took workshops with the Center for Systems Awareness and elsewhere and added intentional contemplative practices to my daily routine. The courses gave me a newfound understanding that has had a profound influence on the way I show up in my life and in my relationships.
Around the same time, my professional horizons were changing. In November 2018, the Expanded Learning Division came together, along with several guests and stakeholders, to develop a strategic vision for our work over the next five years.2 The plan created a roadmap for ongoing improvement, with emphasis on quality of programs, promoting equity, strengthening social and emotional supports, developing collaborative partnerships with community groups and families, and developing a diverse workforce to interact with children. The report saw after-school and outside-of-the-school-day programs as year-round learning opportunities that could help prepare K-12 students for college, careers, and life.
I was deeply in tune with the importance of expanded learning, not just because of my job, but because my own children went to before- and after-school programs. I rarely saw my children’s regular classroom teachers; I communicated with them by email or phone, but I knew the after-school staff. They could tell me directly how my children were doing and cared deeply for their well-being. Many families depend on after school for that kind of connection. If their primary language is not English, after-school staff members who speak their language may be the only school people they fully trust.
The Covid-19 pandemic changed the nature of those connections. In California, the lockdowns started in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the bridges. That was shocking in itself. Then, on Friday the 13th of March, we heard the schools were closing.
In expanded learning, we had many decisions of our own to make. We did not know where to start, and health guidance continually changed. A lot of students receive subsidized snacks or meals in expanded learning programs. Some schools started handing out meals with a drive thru set up. Others delivered meals to families at home. Local districts had to figure out how to manage the distribution of supplies and materials. Expanded learning programs went beyond programming and became local support systems while battling many questions: How would testing be handled? What are the quarantine protocols? How can we support our most vulnerable students?
We had hoped to get back to normal in the Fall of 2020, but the pandemic hit California hard. Many students were staying with their neighbors, friends, or extended family if they were not able to attend expanded learning program or were participating in virtual schooling; this often meant outbreaks would occur in those neighborhoods or families. That added to the level of stress people were feeling.
Another challenge had to do with students who went missing. Some did not show up for virtual school in Spring 2020 and into the Fall, some didn’t show up in-person. After-school staff helped with outreach because they knew the families. They knew where they lived or knew friends and other family members. In one case I knew personally, a student had not attended school from March 2020 until October 2020. She had attended an after-school program before, and her friend convinced her to go back there. The after-school staff said, “Hey, where have you been?” They got her back into school!
For all these reasons, expanded-learning staff members were eager for a connection space. Many of them felt isolated; they were often the only person at their peer level in a school district or school site. Some oversaw expanded learning at multiple schools. This was their chance to build an emotional-social connection with others who understood. There was no other agenda.
Photo: Jamie Lopes
Getting the Connection Space Underway
First, I had to set a different tone than a typical state education department meeting, where the first thing people want to know, when they come in, is compliance or accountability. If someone came in expecting that kind of meeting, I would try to meet with them separately to address their needs. I really wanted the meetings to be grounded in a generative social field – a shared space that contributes to the social and emotional well-being of everyone involved.
During the first few sessions, I would open by talking about some of my own challenges, including as a parent dealing with the pandemic’s issues. The self-care piece was important; we had to be compassionate with ourselves first. I used the analogy of taking a flight; before the airplane leaves the runway, the flight attendant tells the parents and guardians to put their oxygen mask on first. They must keep breathing and take care of themselves before they can help others.
In some sessions, we did nothing but a check-in. With a simple greeting – “How are you doing?” – we would go around and hear from everyone in turn. We would talk about social and emotional learning, and what we were doing to make sure students were safe. We discussed students with equity concerns: they did not have access to the internet or computers. Some families were getting ill and losing family members. Some students were facing abuse, neglect, family deaths and the trauma associated with those events.
In some sessions we would have journaling on a question. In one, we saw a video on the value of music for focus, and then talked about it. I try to mix up different media. We divide into breakout groups of three or four people to talk in more depth. I rotate the membership of the groups so that there’s cross-pollination among different agencies and roles. We call the groups “spaces,” not “sessions,” because the space is always there. Even if you can’t visit one week, you can visit next time.
Over time, the depth of the spaces grew. Some attendees had never been to a regional meeting before, even though we’d been trying for years to invite them.
If you keep it simple and learn to sense what is moving within the group you work with, it is easier to remain strong, welcoming, and supportive. The way we show up always ripples through the system, and with the pandemic still causing pressure and trauma for many, cultivating a generative space is even more important than ever. Sessions like this help all of us show up differently with staff, students, friends and family. We want to pass it on.
Education Programs | Specialist California Department of Education | Expanded Learning Division
California Hub | USA
- References on expanded learning and its potential: Hay, J, State of the State of Expanded Learning in California 2017–18, CAN; Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R., Pachan S., A Meta-Analysis of After-School Programs That Seek to Promote Personal and Social Skills in Children and Adolescents, Society for Community Research and Action, 2010; Evaluations Backgrounder: A Summary of Formal Evaluations of After-school programs’ Impact on Academics, Behavior, Safety and Family Life, After-school Alliance, 2015.
- California Department of Education Expanded Learning Division, A Vision for Expanded Learning in California: Strategic Plan 2.0, 2019-2023, 2018: California Department of Learning, https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/ex/documents/strategicplan2.pdf