When the pandemic forced Austin-based Girlstart to go remote, the priority for Tamara Hudgins, its executive director, was finding a way to maintain that hands-on experience for the girls in her program, the majority of whom come from low-income households and likely have few other options for this kind of academic enrichment.

“Learning via the screen is a real challenge, for the adults as well as children,” Hudgins said. Her solution was to create physical kits containing all the supplies the girls would need. Before the start of every program, each girl receives, either by mail or drop-off, an entire semester’s worth of materials that correspond to the girls’ weekly activities, whether they are working on a DNA phenotype project or exploring the principles of aerodynamics.

“We built a rocket launch,” Isabella said. “That was really fun.”

Going remote but delivering physical materials is one solution to a problem that has plagued after-school providers across the country — how to continue providing their enrichment and child care solutions during a pandemic.

“For low-income kids it’s really hard for programs to run in person,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It costs a lot more to run a program now because you have to have all of the Covid interventions, the PPE and you need to have smaller groups of kids.”

In a pre-pandemic Afterschool Alliance survey, almost 60 percent of parents reported that their children were receiving STEM instruction at least two days a week in an after-school program. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed said that after-school programs helped their children to build social skills, gain confidence and make responsible decisions.

“One of our biggest fears in the field is that it’s not just the academics [affected by the pandemic],” Grant said. “Socially isolating kids for what’s going on a year now is a horrific thing to do to them. We’re seeing increased anxiety, increased mental illness, increased depression. It is absolutely clear to us that if kids can be with other kids and caring adults in person, that’s huge.”

The lack of systemic support at city and state levels has come at a great cost. According to a November survey by Afterschool Alliance, the number of students with access to after-school programs had been cut in half since the start of the pandemic. Of those who do take part in such programs, children from more affluent families are more likely to be enrolled in programs that are operating in-person than are their lower-income peers, whose participation tends to be limited to online models.

Read the full article about after-school programs by Amadou Diallo at The Hechinger Report.