After-school programs pivoting in wake of COVID-19 as schools move to virtual, hybrid learning

Marina Affo
Delaware News Journal

Cindy Doyle and Charles McVaugh sat on a bench behind a plexiglass wall Monday afternoon watching their kids kick and jump as their karate instructor taught the basic steps to self defense. 

A total of 15 students were in the studio clad in child-sized masks and uniforms, listening intently for their next directions. 

Children participate in the kenpo karate class at American Karate Studios in Newark Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. The karate studio has recently started a remote learning program where students can attend virtual school during the day and attend an after school program later in the afternoon.

All of the kids – many as young as 5 and in kindergarten – had finished a day of remote learning at the American Karate Studios, which now also goes by Newark After School. Due to COVID-19, the studio pivoted from just a karate studio to a remote learning space and after-school program for kids in the Red Clay and Christina school districts. 

But in the wake of COVID-19, the studio – along with other after-school programs and activities across the state – has been forced to adjust how it offers services and reaches the kids who need it most. 

The Newark karate studio is heavily limiting the number of kids it lets into its program to protect them from the coronavirus that continues to spread through Delaware.

During the day, each of the children are spread out among the studio's various rooms and spaces with tiny barriers separating everyone while they do their work. There are extra rooms available if some of them finish early and want to do arts or games, and staff are on standby to help with Zoom or remote learning issues. 

Once the day ends, they shift again and spread the kids out for games and particularly, karate.

Children participate in the kenpo karate class at American Karate Studios in Newark Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. The karate studio has recently started a remote learning program in which students can attend virtual school during the day and an after-school program later in the afternoon.

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While McVaugh is retired and could keep his 5-year-old son, Hudson, home for remote learning, he wants him to be able to see other kids regularly. 

Hudson has been coming to American Karate Studios for over a month between the summer program – and now, remote learning – and McVaugh said it's been great for both him and his son. 

"I'd rather him be in a social environment and around his friends," he said. "This is the time where they socialize. This is the building block."

Bringing programming back safely

After-school programs don't only give children a place to socialize and learn. They’re also a safety net for the thousands of parents who need a place for their kids to not only get homework help, but also learn skills they wouldn’t be able to get in classrooms.

It allows them to tap into passions that they may not be aware of while they’re in English or math class. Organizations like 4-H, the Choir School, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and Newark After School all provide these spaces for children across the state. 

And while there was a large focus on how to bring back fall sports and athletics, there has been less discussion about how after-school programs and sports alternatives will continue during this era of COVID. 

During a state Board of Education meeting last month, the role of other extracurriculars was brought up only briefly. 

Board of Education President Whitney Sweeney asked, “Are there any extracurriculars outside of sports being considered or in place at schools?”

Kevin Fitzgerald, superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District and a board member of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, had an answer.

“We are making plans to move forward with marching band and with cheerleading in my school," Fitzgerald said. "We are also contemplating and looking at ways to get other clubs and activities, because we felt that should the state board move forward and approve DIAA’s recommendation, that we should also consider all of the other opportunities possible to provide to all of our students.”

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One advantage sports have over other clubs and activities is the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees all of the sports activity for schools as a whole and advocates on their behalf – and in this case, played a key role in bringing fall sports back to Delaware.

The Delaware Afterschool Network, funded in part from a grant through United Way and started four years ago, partners with a number of after-school programs and does advocacy work, but an all-encompassing advocacy board like the DIAA doesn't exist for other extracurriculars or after-school programs. 

And while Fitzgerald was only speaking about Caesar Rodney High School, the decision to bring back other activities is still up to each individual school district. 

“We are concerned about the long-term impact that is going to have on our families, just like the schools are,” said Regina Sidney-Brown, director of the Delaware Afterschool Network. 

Program Director for the kenpo karate class at American Karate Studios John Sarmousakis leads class Oct. 5, 2020, in Newark.

A safe place to learn and play

It was the first day back at the studio for Cindy Doyle's daughter, Olivia, and even after just a day, her mom said she already feels better having her daughter there instead of at a day care or even home. 

Five-year-olds have a lot of energy, and she needs to have some of her brain and body occupied, Doyle said. 

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These spaces are particularly important now during the COVID-19 pandemic, as some parents are physically returning to work while others are still working from home. 

“For a working parent, you don't have a child that has to go to somebody's house until you can get home and get the child, and then somebody has already helped them with their homework, which was always a big problem,” said Crista Christy, who has two granddaughters in the 4-H clubs at their Milford schools. 

Having a space that her granddaughters, Madilyn and Elizabeth, can go and get homework help, while also building things with their hands and learning, helped one of her granddaughters who was struggling get back on track, Christy said. 

“They do virtual check-ins with the students, as well as the families, but we do worry,” Sidney-Brown said of the programs in the Delaware Afterschool Network.

All the programs, including the American Karate Studios, have had to pivot since COVID-19 shut everything down in March. Many programs distributed food, gave kids at-home projects and provided mental health services for children and families. 

But now that schools are back in session, the programs are worried about going virtual or even hybrid and how it will affect the sense of community that after-school programs are known to create. With each school district doing something different, it will be difficult to coordinate everything from how to get kids to the programs as well as how to safely fulfill their mission. 

“After-school programs are all about that engagement in person, the special handshakes, the ‘How are you doing?’” Sidney-Brown said.

Despite this concern, many of them are rolling with the punches every day and doing all they can to assist not just the parents, but also the students. Plans are constantly changing as state mandates come and go and individual districts set their own guidelines.

American Karate Studios also had a summer program but until the last week of their program in August, there was no mask mandate for small children around the age of 5. When that came in, the program had to make the change and require kids wear them, even if only for a week. 

Sujeily Acosta’s 11-year-old daughter has been going to the Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center in Wilmington since she was three and her mom trusts the center more than any place else for her daughter right now. 

Each day, Acosta brings her daughter to the center in the morning where she does virtual school and also after school activities. There, she not only gets homework help, but staff support throughout the day.  

Parents are not allowed into the building much of the time when their kids are doing remote learning and after school, another precaution for which Acosta is grateful. 

If the center wasn’t there or able to accommodate her daughter, Acosta would be worried about who would be watching her daughter and assisting them during this time – largely because her daughter relies so heavily on that extra time outside of school in a controlled educational environment. 

Kids are sick of being on Zoom and doing everything online, said Judy O'Neill, director of American Karate Studios. 

"They were so isolated for so long and they didn't have any of the social interactions," she said, "and to be able to have positive interactions with other children in a positive nurturing loving environment, it's just absolutely critical for their development." 

Reporter Brad Meyers contributed to this report.

Contact Marina Affo at Follow her on Twitter at @marina_affo.