By Earl Declet
Citywide Director of High School Services
Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco
For our high school members in particular, this pandemic has caused a toxic mix of loss, stress, and tremendous uncertainty.
The teen members of Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco are a diverse group of young people with amazing potential, skills, and strength. They also have their own individual fears, worries, and uncertainty. With no time to prepare or adjust, too many of our Club teens — most who already face unfair burdens and significant challenges — have found themselves overwhelmed by the impact of COVID-19.
Almost nine weeks after schools closed, youth across our city have barely stepped foot outside their homes, let alone headed back to school. While just a few months ago it was common to hear teens complaining about the rigidity of school, most teens are now talking to us about missing the routines of school life. Literally overnight, the school schedule disappeared – when to wake up, when to change classes, when sports practice starts, when the weekend starts and ends.
While SFUSD has incorporated distance learning, some of our kids are finding that the support and resources normally available just aren’t there in the same way. The digital divide is so much greater than many have realized over the past decade. While the cell phone provided a reasonable bridge across the digital divide in normal times, it is an inadequate replacement for a laptop and desktop in these times. Some of our teens don’t have access to a computer or the internet. For those who do, they might be sharing one laptop between three kids, all vying for time to complete online classes or participate in BGCSF programs. Added to this, youth in the communities around our Clubs are less likely to have their own space to dedicate to concentrated work.
Jenny, a 4-year Tenderloin Clubhouse member, is also one of our graduating seniors. She recently shared how tough the school-to-home learning transition was for her.
“Schoolwork has been difficult,” Jenny told me, “because I don’t have my teachers in front of me like I used to. Especially with math. I used to get extra support from a student teacher-helper. I feel like I was just getting the hang of Pre-Calculus before everything shut down. When we started back up with remote learning, I forgot everything, and it was really hard.”
Every summer, there is a level of learning which is lost for most youth – some studies estimate skills gained over the school year diminish between 20-50% over summer. This period of ‘learning loss’ could now stretch from March to August, hitting the most disadvantaged youth hardest, compounding the impact. This loss will have both short and long term impacts for young people.
Beyond academics, pressures on many of our teen members have expanded, too. Lots of our youth live in multi-generational homes where they have responsibilities for taking care of older relatives or younger siblings. During this stressful time when many of our parents and guardians are working in essential jobs or when family members have had their hours cut or lost their job, our teens are taking on added responsibility at home. Some of our teens who helped support their family financially, have lost their job, causing further stress.
I spoke with Jonell Molina, High School Services Director at the Tenderloin Clubhouse, about the impact shelter-in-place has had on our teens.
“It’s affecting their mental health and their physical health,” Jonell said. “It’s become critical for us to create a safe and open space for our youth, especially our teens, to share in whatever way when they need help and to make sure that they know it's okay to ask for help.”
For high school seniors, milestone moments and rites of passage which they worked so hard for are no longer taking place, or won’t look anything like they imagined. Senior-class trip, prom, and graduation have disappeared from the calendar. Spring term, usually a time for so many to enjoy the results of their hard work and to look forward to the next chapter, is instead bringing new anxiety and a deep sense of loss.
Underlying all of our work is our commitment to the health and wellness of our youth, so we’ve been taking time to connect with our members individually through wellness checks. Our High School Services Directors and mentors are regularly reaching out to Club members to see how they and their families are doing. These checks include academics, physical and emotional health, financial challenges, food insecurity, and processing loss. We offer insights and strategies to help them cope, and when the issues are more acute we call in our Behavioral Health Services team. Whether it’s taking 30 minutes to focus on one assignment or helping them plan out their week, we are continuing to be adult allies just as we were in the Clubhouse.
In this trying time, we know our support is needed more broadly. We can’t just focus on the child when the family is in crisis. When families are struggling with food insecurity, we are directing them to one of our food distribution sites (or another organization’s site in some communities), or even delivering food to their door steps (BGCSF has led or supported food distribution efforts throughout the Shelter-in-Place, totaling over 4,000 meals a week in May). In Sunnydale, access to wifi services has been a challenge, so the Club created a computer lab in the community center below the Clubhouse to allow families to access computers.
High School Graduation… and the Path Ahead
For our graduating seniors, we are concentrating on helping them understand the impact of coronavirus on colleges and the options open to them. Four-year colleges have almost universally moved summer-bridge programs online, and fall classes are heading in the same direction. We are discussing with seniors whether alternatives for next year make more sense for them. Is it sensible to take fall classes at City College instead of going away to school? Is a gap year worth considering? These are the questions our eldest members are grappling with, as college is very expensive and distance learning is not ideal for our members. We are supporting our members to make the best decisions for themselves.
Even during this crisis, Friday ‘Teen Nights’ are thriving. Traditionally, our Clubhouses stay open into the late evening as a special time and space just for teens. This is an opportunity to build community and socialize in a safe and positive environment. We have effectively replicated the in-Club Teen Night virtually. It might now be online, but it’s still the best day of the week for many teens!
We’ve made it a priority to continue to create space for our members to connect and lead. Our main community service and teen leadership program, Keystone Club, is still running with weekly virtual meetups, and the President’s Advisory Council has continued to meet, online, with the Club’s President and Director of Youth Leadership Programs. It’s been inspiring to see the way that in this time of crisis our teens continue to look around them and want to help others: from making bags of supplies to distribute to the homeless, to supporting food distribution in the community, they are finding ways to give back. Our Club LITs (Leaders-in-Training) – teens who would usually be supporting staff in the Clubhouses – are transitioning to lead in our virtual settings: making how-to videos and doing read-alongs for younger members.
Reasons to Celebrate
May is a month of celebration for seniors, and we are taking full advantage of the opportunity. May 25 to May 29 is Graduation Week – we are excited to celebrate all of our seniors for their hard work over years. Care-a-Vans are heading out across the city and beyond, to celebrate young people. Groups of staff will dance, cheer, and laugh with our seniors from front steps, sidewalks, and driveways -- making sure our seniors know they are valued and loved. Care packages will be given to every graduate.
Nearly 60 of our teens have committed to college, with eight attending UC Berkeley. We are celebrating these stars as they submit statements of intent to register at colleges across the state and country, and we are celebrating our students receiving scholarships from us and others!
Summer is usually the busiest time of year for the High School Services team, as we employ teens, attend the National Keystone Conference, and plan and participate in career exposure events. This summer will certainly look a lot different, but our focus is on making the summer as enjoyable as possible, including welcoming teens back to the Clubhouses that closed (BGCSF kept four Clubhouses open throughout the crisis). We are excited to support our teens’ engagement with their peers in a safe and supportive environment. Numbers of youth will be limited and social distancing protocols will be followed, but we will be offering fun opportunities for our young people and providing academic enrichment and job readiness programs. One important step on the path forward for all of us.
To read more stories about how BGCSF is supporting youth and families right now, click here!
Earl Declet has over nine years of experience in education and youth development and has been with Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco for four years. During his time at BGCSF, Earl has placed teens in over 200 jobs and his programs have been awarded more than $14,000 in grant funding to support his teen programs. Earl received his BA in Philosophy with minors in Asian American Studies and Sports Management from UC Santa Barbara and his MA in Sports Management from California State University, Long Beach.