Finding a new path for children to succeed: What COVID setbacks can teach us about learning, both in school and outside it

By Tanya Baronti, Director, United for Children, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania

If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s that we are all, always, learning. We are learning to adapt to new ways to work, new ways to connect, new ways to live. And we’re learning new ways to learn.

While educators, parents and experts in the learning field struggle to make sense of the impact of COVID-19 and how to ameliorate the setbacks our children are facing, there is a bright spot, however, one that will last long after the pandemic ends.

United Way and our numerous partners are coming together in critical ways to provide innovative learning opportunities. And children are responding.

As the lines between ‘school’ and ‘after school’ blur, our partners are stepping up so that students are engaged with learning, getting homework help, managing their technology, safely socializing with peers and, not insignificantly, receiving healthy snacks and meals. What’s more, services that have traditionally been known as ‘after school programming,’ are having another important effect: helping working parents work, with fewer worries about child safety and juggling child care.

While United Way and our partners have always focused on helping children succeed in school and life, that role is even more vital as schools struggle with teaching and learning processes, and we work together to reimagine the path of success in a world with social distancing and safety guidelines. Beyond ensuring that our region’s children don’t fall through the cracks during the pandemic, we are actively arming children with the tools they need to learn and grow in a safe environment.

To ensure social and academic support for children, community hubs are a hallmark of COVID-era learning. Through an innovative collaboration with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and Trying Together, United Way is supporting more than 50 community learning hubs providing safe spaces for education and meals for families and students.

The Grable Foundation generously awarded United Way with funding to implement an advanced professional development fellowship to enhance social-emotional learning (SEL). This will help after-school providers equip their staff with knowledge, resources and a supportive learning community to improve their practices. This important work is happening in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh and the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College.

Another program that pivoted to provide a safe and remote learning environment during the pandemic, while maintaining educational momentum and offering care centers to aid working parents year-round, is the Bridge to Learn Campaign. A partnership of 14 organizations including the city of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Allegheny County, this outlet of resources supports the new classroom setting and connects families to learning opportunities across the region online.

When workplaces began to reopen this summer, the McElhattan Foundation provided unprecedented support for in-person summer programs that served more than 1,600 children across 17 programs in our community, including those helping children affected by the social and economic impact of the pandemic on their families.

Because after-school learning also provides the opportunity for creative and emotional growth, United Way and The Heinz Endowments’ Creative Learning Rapid Response team, together with Arts Education Collaborative (AEC) and The Legacy Arts Project, strategized and developed a program that works to cultivate virtual creative arts and provide transformative learning experiences to young people, while employing local artists facing job loss due to COVID-19.

Instead of lamenting our altered blueprints as a result of the pandemic, I am proud that United Way’s partners are embracing the challenges and working together with a single, guiding vision: helping children succeed. Maybe this idea of continually learning new ways to learn is the one that will ultimately lead us through the pandemic. It’s a proven path no matter how many twists and turns we encounter.