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My Turn, Laurie Ward: Rowan-Cabarrus YMCA helped students with pandemic learning

By Laurie Ward

Rowan County United Way’s mission is to create lasting, positive change in the community. 

Our United Way was chartered in 1956, and for 65 years it has provided direct financial empowerment to local families through its community investment partners. The Rowan-Cabarrus YMCA is honored to be a Rowan County United Way community investment partner. 

As we all vividly recall, teachers and students were unexpectedly cast into a virtual learning environment on March 17, 2020. Virtual learning paired with a worldwide pandemic created stressed kids and parents. Remaining true to our mission, the YMCA established Y Academy to meet the needs of Rowan County youth and their families. Y Academy in partnership with Rowan-Salisbury Schools assisted parents with scheduling and operated as a full-day supervision and academic support option for the 2020-2021 school year. Y Academy was provided from Aug. 17, 2020, to March 26 from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Challenges noted during Y Academy included: students truly need to be mature and self-disciplined to succeed; virtual learning is an inappropriate learning environment for more dependent learners (K-3); students struggled to learn outside the familiarity of the classroom; technology/computer literacy of students and parents was tested and fell short on multiple occasions; and families had to be deeply involved in every step of virtual learning, which meant work obligations caused tremendous stress and difficulty finding a balance.

Although youth were initially less physically susceptible to COVID‐19, they were subjected to significant developmental risk due to the resulting economic, health and educational disruptions that upset all aspects of their lives. Risk factors included family disruption due to illness/death, financial instability tied to job loss/adjustments and educational disruptions due to school closures and extended remote learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic transformed society in profound ways that have exacerbated social and economic inequalities. Abundant research in psychology and human development shows that circumstances early in peoples’ lives influence future decisions, life events and life trajectory. A key risk factor affecting a child’s future life choices is his or her family situation. By intervening in a child’s life, there’s potential to alter the life trajectory of that child in a positive direction. The Rowan-Cabarrus YMCA’s child care programs, with the help of United Way funding, are serving as a protective intervention for youth struggling with the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, Y Academy provided one-on-one help to students struggling in the virtual learning environment. Dedicated volunteers with experience in early childhood education and counseling assisted many students through their virtual learning challenges. Y counselors reinforced a sense of control and reassured children they would be OK and that the situation would get better. This was achieved by being a calm role model during this health crisis; properly discussing COVID-19, social distancing and mask wearing; demonstrating deep breathing and ways to relax; focusing on the positives; and offering lots of love and support to both children and their families. Y Academy staff focused on guiding the students successfully through their school day; incorporating health and physical fitness breaks as applicable; and providing healthy, nutritious meals in partnership with Rowan-Salisbury School System. 

Lastly, Y Academy staff helped students keep their social skills sharp and intact. With virtual learning, social skills became an obstacle for the kids. Cohorts (groups of 10 kids) relearned how to interact with each other in a safe manner through crafts, cooking, games and science activities.

Today, also with funding provided by United Way, the Y is committed to providing after-school programming to alleviate learning loss created by the COVID-19 disruptions, including weekly social-emotional learning activities, daily enrichment centers (art, music, cooking, health and nutrition, STEM, homework support, reading, and recreation), and daily physical activities geared towards improving the students aerobic capacity, muscle/bone strength and flexibility.

Counselors are creating a safe zone and after-school community where students feel comfortable sharing feelings, ideas and goals. Through planned activities, students will gain insight to his or her emotions, what causes emotions, how to handle those emotions, how to be kind to others, how to communicate respectfully and how to build relationships with others. Additionally, counselors will foster a growth mindset attributing success to effort, attention, practice, and/or persistence. Research confirms students who participate in social-emotional learning activities show improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression and better attitudes about themselves, others and school.

We have learned that now more than ever our young people need the support of the YMCA to help them and their parents navigate through these unprecedented and challenging times. 

When our community can come together and inspire one another to give their time, money and talents to go to our community needs, then those resources ultimately flow to our neighbors in need and create a thriving community for everyone.

When it comes to healing our community, many people have no idea where to start. Supporting Rowan County United Way is a great place to start.

Laurie Ward is human resources director for the Rowan-Cabarrus YMCA.

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