Meeting the Moment: How afterschool programs kept the lights on through the COVID crisis

by Mark Cowsert, Associate Director of Policy and Partnerships for the Missouri AfterSchool Network 

Mid-March, 2020 seemed like any other late winter, early spring time of year, but as we all know now, things shifted drastically in school buildings and community-based organizations across the state (and the nation) as Covid-19 made its way into our lives. As schools closed and working parents were forced to stay home, before-and afterschool/out-of-school-time programs across the state went into overdrive to make sure that school-age children were safe, fed, and on course academically.

Life shifted drastically in so many ways, and afterschool professionals looked for ways to continue to serve essential workers as well as support the virtual education efforts of schools when the great move happened that begins with the letter “p.” Pivot! As much as I used this word early in what I now call “Covid-interruptus,” I have joked that I never want to use the word “pivot” again, and yet, it so describes the work and resiliency of the thousands of amazing professionals that care for the over 135,000 school age children grades K-12 in nearly 1,100 before-and afterschool/out-of-school-time programs across the Show Me State.

As a former program director of a 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC) program and current member of the Missouri AfterSchool Network (MASN) team, I was never prouder of my friends and colleagues as I was from mid-March until now. As Zooms became a way of life several times a day, the stories of “pivoting” to serve families gripped my heart. Delivering meals to children who lived several miles out of town or just a few blocks away became a daily routine so that staff could see that their students were safe and okay. Facebook Live, Zoom and Google Hangouts replaced the warmth of in-person care and afterschool professionals found a way to still provide a broad array of activities, a warm voice of encouragement and the assurance that their students were not forgotten.

This Thursday, October 22, is National Lights On Afterschool Day. Established 21 years ago by the Afterschool Alliance, this special celebration event shines a bright light on the important role that afterschool plays in the development of and care for school age children. Providing a safe place for school age children whose parents must clock into a mid-Missouri factory at 7:00 am or the children whose parents can’t leave their downtown St. Louis or Kansas City office until 5:00 in evening are just a couple reasons afterschool is so vitally important for Missouri’s families.

Beyond providing a safe place while parents begin and finish their workday, afterschool programs provide quality educational opportunities for academic enrichment that supports the success of students, encourages students to dream big dreams through career awareness and entrepreneurship initiatives, and builds confidence for students through mentorship. If ever there was a time to shine a big spotlight on afterschool, it is now. Working families need this critical care and students need the safety and support of a consistent mentor. Missouri has the most amazing programs from deep in the bootheel to the other three corners of the state and all points in between. This week, seek out the staff of an afterschool program and tell them “thank you” for the dedication to serve families and care for the students of your community.

Should you be so inclined, take a few moments on Thursday morning at 11:00 am and come celebrate afterschool with the first ever MASN Virtual Lights On Afterschool Celebration: We will honor some wonderful afterschool champions, hear from students whose lives have been changed forever, honor the lifetime achievement of a dedicated professional and remind the afterschool community that all those “pivots” have been and will continue to be worth it for Missouri’s kids!

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