Our public education system is in uncharted territory. In our lifetime, we have never before been faced with a pandemic like COVID-19 that has necessitated school closures on a massive scale. Needless to say, school districts throughout the nation are facing one of the most challenging years in recent history.
School districts are scrambling to quickly identify ways to continue to provide students with learning opportunities while determining whether and how they might reopen schools safely. In the short-term this has meant having to provide students and families access to computers and the internet while supporting teachers to implement distance learning.
For much of the country, it has become evident that schools will continue virtual learning, either partially or completely, for the entire school year. The impacts also go beyond K-12 schools; major California universities such as U.C. Berkeley and the entire California State University system have announced that classes will remain online next semester.
This disruption comes at a time where there is also considerable uncertainty about the economy. When states experience a dramatic loss of revenue, it often presents funding crises for schools, which receive about half of their budgets from state coffers.
Thankfully, communities and philanthropy are responding to both near-term challenges, focusing on urgent student needs, and long-term reform, taking this opportunity to tackle systemic issues.
In the short-term, funding has focused on providing students and their families with essentials such as computers, Internet access, meals, and financial assistance. This is often done through local education foundations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, organizations such as SPARK, Ravenswood Education Foundation, Redwood City Education Foundation, Oakland Public Education Fund, and West Contra Costa Public Education Fund have set-up funds to address district-specific student needs.
State departments of education are also addressing digital divide issues. For example, in California the State Superintendent of Public Instruction has identified closing the digital divide as a core priority at this time. The department has created a website with information on how to join dozens of other foundations and individuals to donate to this issue.
Beyond essential needs, there has been growing concern about COVID-related learning loss and student challenges related to remote learning. Districts are concerned about students that lack internet access, are homeless and housing insecure, or have parents working outside the home with little time to help with virtual classes. In response, communities and districts have come together to open ‘learning hubs’ or ‘community pods’ for children where students can go all day or half-day and receive aid with distance learning.
In San Francisco, the learning hubs are being led by the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. There are also a number of organizations, including the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, and San Francisco Beacon Initiative that are coordinating hubs. Funds are being used to rent space, secure staff, purchase personal protective equipment, and provide high-quality internet access.
In Oakland, the learning hubs are a result of a close collaboration between the school district and the Oakland Public Education Fund. Dozens of community-based organizations are providing space for children to attend class and receive additional academic and social emotional supports. One such organization is Oakland Reach, which has set-up virtual hubs where hundreds of students and families are receiving support from a family liaison to access and navigate distance learning. Students in the virtual hub are also receiving high-quality academic instruction and emotional support.
Beyond the immediate essential and academic supports, supporting student mental health at the system and direct service levels will be important over the long term. PFS client Sand Hill Foundation carried that focus forward as a key area of their COVID response funding. Sand Hill Foundation funds organizations that support local families as they navigate life’s pathways – and considers youth mental health and well-being a top priority. In 2020, the foundation provided over $1.2M in support of organizations providing mental health services for young people in San Mateo and northern Santa Clara counties. Many of the grantee organizations allocated the support toward equipping both counselors and their young clients with the proper technology to provide virtual therapy and tele-health services.
Finally, many college access programs have also developed local funds to support students with additional financial hardships during this time. For nearly two decades, another PFS client, Yellow Chair Foundation, has supported college access and success for first-generation and students of color. During this time, national and local college access programs such as iMentor have developed COVID response funds to ensure students have the assistance they need to continue with their college journey.
As the school year continues, many opportunities remain to support students and families during this challenging and disruptive time. Whether at the local, state, or national level, foundations are coming together to meet the challenge through Pacific Foundation Services and beyond.