April 2, 2020
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How to care for at-risk youth during the COVID-19 crisis

The coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated many of the issues that educators and community leaders face under normal circumstances. Here’s how they can adjust their programming to support vulnerable communities.

We may not be about to physically come together right now, but there are still ways to connect, empower, and mentor young people. Photo courtesy of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington

As federal, state, and local authorities work around the clock to mitigate the spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), those of us who work in education and other community-based sectors grapple with a new reality: How do we adequately care for the young people we’ve pledged to serve?

Identifying solutions is the top priority for Crittenton Services of Greater Washington. At Crittenton, we empower girls to overcome obstacles, make positive choices, and achieve their goals. We work with nearly 600 young women from the 6th to 12th grades, many of whom face structural barriers at the intersections of their race, gender, and zip codes.

We are fully aware of the challenges and barriers our girls face under normal circumstances. Through research from our Declare Equity for Girls report, we learned from young women—the experts in their own lives—that school environments, home and community stressors, and high rates of absenteeism all contribute to low academic achievement. The COVID-19 outbreak has only exacerbated these issues.

Here are the key ways to ease the transition for the communities we serve.

1. Set and maintain a consistent presence and schedule

Prior to COVID-19, our program leaders ran weekly group sessions in schools with our girls, focused on leadership, advocacy, and social and emotional learning. We created space for girls to connect, learn, and thrive. Now, with D.C. schools closed, girls are adjusting to countless shifts in the normalcy of their lives—interrupted learning and diminished access to resources.

For many girls, they’ve been pulled away from the relationships that ground them. This comes with the backdrop of parents being furloughed, taking unpaid leave, or losing jobs, and families balancing the competing needs of childcare and parent-care in multigenerational homes. For all of us, crisis and uncertainty brings stress and anxiety that can be tough without adequate access to mental health services. At Crittenton, this is a time to show up with and for our girls now more than ever. We’ve continued our program in a virtual format during the shutdown in order to remain a stabilizing force in the girls’ lives. We’re meditating together, discussing self-care, and creating accountability groups. We’re working to bridge technology gaps so all of our girls can have this access and support.

2. Adopt multiple modes of communication

Inequities can grow when we’re all in crisis. The digital divide in the U.S. will leave many students behind as society transitions to remote life and distance learning. My team has resorted to email, texts, individual phone calls, video chats, and group chats with apps like House Party, to keep in regular communication with our girls in lieu of in-person contact. All modes are necessary because digital integration is limited and inconsistent within the communities we serve.

According to Pew Research, 26 percent of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are “smartphone-dependent,” 46 percent lack a traditional computer, and 44 percent don’t have access to home broadband service. Thankfully, numerous telecommunications companies have stepped up to offer free internet service to allow more families to connect during the outbreak, but that is just one piece of the puzzle.

3. Be a resource for timely and credible information

In less than three weeks, the COVID-19 situation has devolved from “take precautionary measures” to nearly every state issuing shelter-in-place orders. It is easy to get lost in the abundance, speed, and accuracy of information. In our case, one of our girls posted in a group chat that she read on the internet that the coronavirus comes from Chinese food. Before school closures, another student shared that her class went into a frenzy after a student sneezed from seasonal allergies. Everyone, especially those of us in leadership positions, must be discerning with our words and the information we share.

At Crittenton, we’ve chosen to only share information directly published from our local government, the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and trusted affiliate organizations. We find families want information about COVID-19 protocols, education plans, and meal distribution and other support sites should they experience an emergency. We’ve had 15 families, 115 adults, children, and babies run out of food and two students lose their jobs in less than a week.

Normalcy, reliability, and predictability are some of our greatest comforts in uncertain times. While we don’t know how long the COVID-19 outbreak will last, I have full confidence that my fellow educators and community leaders will do what we’ve always done—rise to the occasion.

Siobhan Davenport

Siobhan Davenport

Crittenton Services of Greater Washington

Siobhan Davenport is the President and CEO of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington. They serve over 600 girls in 20 school-based programs in the greater Washington area.