Amid Uncertainty Over Return to School Campuses, United Way Serves Students in Need | Good for Santa Barbara


That’s the number of days since students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District last attended classes on campus. 

The COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020 and forced the closure of Santa Barbara County schools on March 13. No one knew that 10 months later, the schools still would be closed to students.

But amid the finger-pointing, political posturing and logistical organizing about when and how to return to in-person classes, a group of nonprofit organizations and activists have come together to provide learning spaces for students during the pandemic.

The United Way of Santa Barbara County has launched the Learning & Enrichment Center Collaborative, which serves 501 students across Santa Barbara County.

« The learning pods provide a safe and supportive learning environment for students, » said Melinda Cabrera, director of strategic partnerships for United Way of Santa Barbara County. « Students are supported during distance learning. This becomes particularly important with very young students who need help logging on to their devices and staying engaged. »

The program serves students who are most in need, who don’t have WiFi access in homes or who don’t have homes at all. They might be sharing living quarters with multiple families or have no one at home to assist them because their parents, siblings and guardians are at work. 

« Distance learning provides a multitude of challenges, particularly for students from low-resource communities, » Cabrera said. « Families struggle with accessing WiFi, technology and school supplies suitable for distance learning. Food insecurity also has been an issue for some families struggling due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. »

Cabrera said that for many families who have to work, providing child care is not an option because of the high costs. Many families are faced with having to choose between work and staying home to supervise their children, Cabrera said.

« In some instances where multiple families share a home or an apartment, students find it difficult to find a physical space that is conducive for learning, » Cabrera said. « Additionally, some parents or adults in the home find navigating through the various educational platforms and technology quite difficult. »

The students are supported during their virtual learning and receive help with their homework and independent studies. The Learning & Enrichment Center Collaborative also provides enrichment and the ability for student to socialize with their peers.

In addition to the academic support, students are given meals and snacks so they can focus on their schoolwork, Cabrera said.

A young student accesses an online academic program while
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A young student accesses an online academic program while (Courtesy photo)

The sites are distributed throughout the county, including places such as the Channel Islands YMCA, Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara, Isla Vista Youth Projects, the Santa Maria Valley YMCA and the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County.

For the fall semester, the United Way raised $681,000 and so far has raised another $710,000 for remote learning through April. The United Way hopes to offer the program to serve even more students through the end of the school year with additional funding. 

« We are thrilled to be a part of this crucial support for youth and families during this time, » said Kristina Webster, director of programs for Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara. 

Girls Inc. has space for 88 youths, including 16 spaces for seventh through 12th grades on its Goleta campus, 14 spaces for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade at its downtown location and another 58 spaces for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade at the Goleta campus.

« During the pandemic, students are facing multiple challenges and impacts on their everyday lives, » Webster said. « Students who are underrepresented face additional impacts as their families are further stressed during this time. Many families have adults who are now out of work and are struggling financially, struggling to feed their families, are overwhelmed with additional stressors of racial injustice and, along with everyone else, have the fear of contracting COVID-19. »

Webster said the learning and enrichment centers provide desks, chairs and dedicated learning spaces. There are also backup electronic devices for students who forget theirs, and adults help the students navigate their academic, social and emotional needs.

« The Learning & Enrichment Centers not only provide for the students, but also provide the opportunity for their adults to go to work to be able to financially provide for the family, » Webster said.

Kate Ford, president of the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education, said the collaborative is what the community needs. 

« These learning enrichment centers are an outstanding support for so many students, especially now, after almost a year of distance learning, » Ford said. « From the data we’ve seen, there are thousands of students who are struggling, and this much-needed United Way collaborative must continue to grow so that more and more children in our community receive the academic assistance and social interaction that they deserve. Honestly, donating to this program is a tangible, meaningful way to make a difference right now, and on behalf of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, I’m deeply grateful to the partners and funders who are making this happen. »

The Santa Barbara Police Activities League is among the groups offering a learning center for students, at its 1235 Chapala St. location.

The organization has supported 152 students since schools closed in March, serving students ages 11 to 18. It has provided students with Internet access, three meals a day, free tutoring and enrichment programs.

« The students we serve are direct referrals from the Santa Barbara Unified School District, or students who willingly enroll, » said Judie Lugo, director of the Santa Barbara Police Activities League. « We understand the impact COVID-19 has on students and their families. While we serve students from all backgrounds, we can see the importance of providing additional resources to underrepresented students within our community. While we understand that every individual family is responding differently to the pandemic, most of our students come to our center because they need additional academic support. »

She said a majority of the students and their families have lost their source of income and do not have the adequate environment at home to focus on their online classes.

« Many older students have taken a caretaker role, assisting younger siblings with their online courses, » Lugo said. « We understand the importance of having our center open and do everything we can to ensure that our students receive adequate support. »

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Amid Uncertainty Over Return to School Campuses, United Way Serves Students in Need | Good for Santa Barbara
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