Organizations that provide vital education services and resources have all had to readjust their delivery methods as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. In Flint, though, the pandemic has also exposed another gap that must be accounted for — a lack of access to and familiarity with technology for many of the city’s residents.
“Literacy is such a multifaceted issue,” said Angela Hood-Beaugard, executive director of the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network. “We always think of it as words on a page, but it’s not just being able to read. It’s writing, it’s comprehension, there’s financial literacy, and there’s digital and technological literacy.”
When schools closed in March, the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network had to focus on getting staff and partners quickly trained and up to speed on new delivery methods, but the organization also had to solve challenges related to technology access and fluency. Unlike other counties in Michigan, Genesee County doesn’t have consistent access to Wi-Fi. Many families also relied on school districts to provide devices. But when the school year ended, in many cases, those devices had to be returned.
“[Digital literacy] is not just, ‘Do I have a device?’, it’s, ‘Do I know how to care for it? Do I have the resources the device needs like Wi-Fi? Who is going to train me to use it?’” Hood-Beaugard said.
But the challenges have also created opportunities. Now, the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network has built a growing collection of online resources that have been used this summer and will continue into the future. One of those programs — called “Flat Summer” — encourages families to print out or digitally download a cartoon dog named Summer to take with them on adventures. Kids can then include the dog in writing activities, such as journaling.
As part of "Flat Summer," Kids can include Summer the dog in writing activities, such as journaling.
The program is facilitated in collaboration with a group of local writers.
Some of the Literacy Network’s programs are facilitated in collaboration with local writers. Danielle Green, author of the “Hey Girl” series of books, was able to debut her latest, “Hey Super Girl,” through the Literacy Network’s virtual story time series in March. Her reading of the book had more than 2,000 views on Facebook.
Green is also the founder and director of Empower, a Flint nonprofit that helps provide education resources and life skills for young women, and she is the treasurer for the Flint Community Schools Board of Education.
“Schools can’t do it alone,” Green said. “The Literacy Network’s programs aren’t just about math, science, and English. They add a component of fun. When kids see Summer the dog, they get excited. It is important that we make kids excited about learning. When they’re having fun in these programs, they’re also building skills.”
The organization has also made extensive use of their social media platforms, especially Facebook, to provide parents and families with an array of ideas for how to engage kids during the summer months. These include read-alongs, activities, and other interactive elements that the Literacy Network will continue promoting in the future. They also assembled a Summer Learning Resource Guide to connect families with virtual learning opportunities this summer and a COVID-19 Resource Guide.
“A silver lining [during the pandemic] has been that we’ve been able to lift and enhance our professional development of our staff and partners and develop more resources that are being spread further than ever before,” Hood-Beaugard said.
That ability to reach larger audiences through virtual tools is a value that has been recognized by other organizations offering youth programs in Flint. The Flint Repertory Theatre has been offering a variety of both free and paid programs, and seen participation from students outside of Michigan as well as locally.
“We've reached students in different states we wouldn’t have met any other way,” said Samuel J. Richardson, education and administrative director at Flint Repertory Theatre. “Seeing that we can provide services not only to our community but other communities is phenomenal. Any positives we can get out there about Flint, we want to do. Students in Virginia, Illinois, other places, they’ve got to see the great things we have here in Flint.”
Although they’ve had to adjust to the virtual platforms instead of the traditional stage, Flint Rep students have still been able to express themselves through theater. In the COVID Chronicles, students in sixth grade through college level wrote and produced short monologues detailing their feelings and experiences during the pandemic. Flint Rep’s annual Summer Shorts series has also continued online.
“Theater is an opportunity for students to express themselves,” Richardson said. “It was important for us to give them an opportunity for their voices to be heard.”
Beyond Flint, that sentiment of encouraging student voices has been prevalent during Black Lives Matter rallies around the country over the last three months. Often, young people have been playing leading roles in those rallies. The arts, and opportunities to find their voices and express themselves at young ages, is key to kids developing those abilities to speak passionately and lead.
Although they’ve had to adjust to the virtual platforms instead of the traditional stage, Flint Rep students have still been able to express themselves through theater.
“Art plays a huge part in speaking out,” Richardson said. “In theater in particular, students learn how to present themselves, how to create a cohesive presentation to get across what they’re truly feeling so they’re not misunderstood. Students have a lot to say, they just need guidance and mentoring to try and get that out. That’s what we try to provide.”
In addition to various paid theater camps, Flint Rep also has a virtual classroom with free games and activities families can try in the summer. Supporters can also make donations to a tuition assistance program to make the paid camps accessible to all families.
“In theater, it touches all bases of education,” Richardson said. "It includes literature, because you have to read. There’s writing if you’re creating a play. There’s history and science if you’re creating a set. All of the lessons taught in school are still being taught or impacted through theater.”
Partnerships also play a vital role for organizations that help combat summer learning loss in students, particularly since most students haven’t been in school since March. For the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network, its group of partners helps deploy valuable resources efficiently.
“A lot of the work we do is advocacy,” Hood-Beaugard said. “There is typically learning loss [in summer], particularly in impoverished communities and communities of color. This is really exacerbated now because students haven’t physically been in school since March. We’re very concerned what that ‘summer slide’ is going to look like [when school reopens].”
People in need of services offered by the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network can reach out directly at 810-232-2526 or through its social media platforms.
“You can see the strength of all of our partners who come together to support this work,” Hood-Beaugard said. “It’s really important to highlight that literacy requires a community approach and response. There is phenomenal strength and skillsets right here within our community.”
This is part of a series on how COVID-19 has challenged Flint organizations that deliver education services to be innovative in an effort to ensure virtual learning tools and resources are available to students from all economic backgrounds. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.