News from The Field: RCCU1 Supports Students and Staff in a Year Like No Other

How do you provide academic supports and enrichment activities while attending to student and staff social and emotional and safety needs during the COVID-19 pandemic? Richland County Community Unit School District 1 (RCCU1) 21st CCLC took on this challenge last year. Like the district it serves, the RCCU1 21st CCLC program offered in-person programming at its two elementary and one middle school site for the entire 2020–21 school year. 

Adhering to safety guidelines required the afterschool team to hire more staff to maintain the pods of 5–10 students that operated during the school day to minimize the risk of virus transmission. The 21st CCLC also began programming earlier in response to a shortened school day intended to reduce student exposure to the virus. It was a year of adjustments, but the 21st CCLC team saw students adapt to changes so they could participate in afterschool activities. “The kids did phenomenal with it. I really couldn’t have asked for it to go better,” says RCCU1 Project Director Jennifer Tedford. Amidst the changes, afterschool participation remained high, and students continued to enjoy enrichment activities like cooking and computer coding. 

The 2020–21 school year also saw a greater emphasis on academic support, as teachers and afterschool staff worked to ensure students were continuing to make academic gains after nearly a semester of online instruction. Teachers referred students who needed additional educational support to participate in the 21st CCLC program, and the 21st CCLC team offered tutoring and homework help both before and after school. Through Google docs and close communication, school-day and 21st CCLC staff shared information about assignments and students’ needs. 

The 21st CCLC did not limit student supports to academics. Teachers also recommended students to the afterschool program for social and emotional supports. In addition to communicating about student academic progress, teachers and afterschool staff worked to provide seamless support for students who were struggling emotionally. Moreover, the 21st CCLC environment gave students a chance to master new skills and experience success. Site Coordinator Kristen Jurgilanis observes that students also benefitted from working one-on-one with a supportive adult, many of whom were also teachers at the school. “That made a big difference this year because so many of the classroom teachers stayed to work with their kids. It was a real positive with some of the kids . . . that their teacher cared enough about them to stay after school and help,” she says. 

Wellness supports for staff and students were also a greater focus this past year. Following the adage “Put your own oxygen mask on first,” site coordinators checked in frequently with their teams. They encouraged staff to take time off to focus on their well-being and mental health and ensured that there were enough substitute instructors so that they could. Tedford acknowledges that the program experienced more behavioral challenges among students during the past school year, reflecting the prolonged stress and mental health challenges many students experienced. When site coordinators saw disruptive behavior, they quickly deployed additional staff as a form of support and to mitigate some of the tension. When behavioral challenges lingered, additional staff was available to work with students one-on-one. 

Additionally, instructors had the flexibility to modify programming and activities as long as they followed safety guidance. “You didn’t have to follow the schedule to a T,” says Tedford. “If you needed to go outside and get some air for 10–15 minutes, [you could] go out and play for a while. Go move and do some type of physical activity.” Program leadership always aimed to support both staff and students in navigating the stresses of what they describe as “a year like no other.” When asked about what informed the 21st CCLC’s decisions as they implemented in-person programming amidst COVID-19 concerns and precautions, Tedford responds, “Your first and foremost guiding principle is, ‘What is best for these kids?’”

Tedford credits the 21st CCLC’s veteran staff, 70% of whom also work in the schools, providing students much-needed continuity and stability. Reflecting on the school year, Tedford says, “It showed a strong resiliency in our students and the staff. I’m proud of our program and what we’ve been able to do for the kids in our community this year.”