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FairfaxOpinionCommentary: Funding needed for after-school, enrichment programs

Commentary: Funding needed for after-school, enrichment programs

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BLAIRE DENSON and MARK EMERY, For the Sun Gazette

When COVID-19 caused school leaders to close schools across Virginia more than a year ago, after-school and summer-enrichment programs didn’t skip a beat.

They transformed in-person programming into online classes for reading, arts, STEM and sports. They opened facilitated learning sites, keeping kids safe, supervised, and supported while they attended “virtual” school and parents worked.

And now, as the delta variant may upend “normal” reopening plans, after-school programs will continue to be critical partners for schools and parents.

But as valuable as these programs are, they have been historically underfunded in Virginia. Right now, three out of four programs across the country are at risk of losing staff or closing their doors completely, despite the ever-growing demand for them. Currently, more than 600,000 Virginia youth are waiting for an available spot in an afterschool program.

Fortunately, we have a tremendous opportunity through the American Rescue Plan to fund after-school and summer-enrichment programs that our kids and families rely on.

The plan gives Virginia’s state and school district leaders decision-making power over more than $2 billion to help students recover. This means there’s potential to ensure access to after-school and summer-enrichment for every child who wants to enroll. But only if our state legislators and agencies choose to fund them.

Decades of research stand behind these programs. Studies show kids who attend enrichment programs make gains in math and reading, and improve their school attendance, work habits, grades and classroom behavior. They are less likely to repeat a grade or use drugs, and more likely to graduate.

Fairfax County Public Schools and the county government’s Department of Neighborhood and Community Services worked with partners and providers to provide virtual after-school activities across 26 middle schools shortly after COVID-19 hit. Partners collaborated and innovated to provide students with creative, enriching opportunities.

Through partners like Capital One, Arena Stage, Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, Step Afrika, MyChef Shirley, EduTutorVa, George Mason University and Asian American Lead, and grants from the Arby’s Foundation, Panda Express and 21st Century Community Learning Centers, students took cooking, photography, fine arts, theater arts, dance, enhanced literacy for English Language Learners, coding, STEM, and sports and fitness activities.

The program followed the ebb and flow of in-person, hybrid and virtual school-day schedules and returned to its full capacity when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. We offered in-person, five-week summer programs with full in-person after-school programming in the fall. In addition, FCPS has invested American Rescue Plan resources to expand after-school opportunities at the high-school level.

This summer, hundreds of other similar programs have been operating across Virginia – something that’s especially critical to re-ignite kids’ love of learning, working parents and parents who need time to seek employment. A recent survey found 88 percent of Virginia parents favor public funding of after-school and summer-learning opportunities; and 79 percent say they help them keep their jobs or work more hours.

But without more state and local investment, many of our programs won’t survive. With the American Rescue Plan, we have the opportunity to provide programs across our state that are proven to help kids reach their full potential.

We urge our legislators and district leaders to ask kids what their local program means to them, and use resources from the American Rescue Plan to address the unmet demand for enrichment programs so no more kids are left out.

Denson is executive director of the Virginia Partnership for Out-of-School Time and Emery is administrator of after-school programs for Fairfax County Public Schools.

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