As the Pandemic Persists, Compassion & Empathy are the Keys to Resilience
Dear PENCIL Partners,
As we welcome in 2021 and the fresh start to the new year, we want to thank each of you for your time, effort, and compassion towards the students PENCIL serves. For nearly a year, New York City schools and their communities have faced unprecedented challenges. As such, now more than ever, PENCIL volunteers are an invaluable resource.
We realize that the pandemic, the economy, and the country’s reckoning with racial injustice has impacted everyone for much longer than we could ever have anticipated. We know you are eager to see things “back to normal” and to work with our students in the robust and interactive ways we did before 2020. At the same time, we ask for your continued patience, flexibility, and understanding as we all continue to navigate this difficult time. We know you all want to put our students and their success first. To help you do that, we wanted to share a few reflections and observations that may help you further appreciate why programming looks different this year.
Student Engagement: The devastation of COVID-19, transition to remote learning, and a general sense of unrest have had a significant impact on our schools and students. Students who once thrived in afterschool clubs, professional internships, and exciting and engaging hands-on classes, no longer have access to those outlets for socialization and support. Many students now shoulder additional responsibilities at home, including overseeing remote learning for siblings, caring for ill or elderly family member, or additional financial responsibilities. Others struggle with a lack of reliable internet or insufficient access to technology. When students do not turn on cameras or microphones it is important to remember not to take it personally or as a demonstration of disinterest. Many students cannot use these features because of other things going on in their homes, a lack of bandwidth, or the device they have access to.
Attendance: Schools across the City are experiencing record low attendance and student disengagement. While the DOE continues to report attendance rates around 87%, this number represents students having any contact with staff including responding to emails and texts, or turning in assignments. Many educators report in class attendance at 50% or lower and that student engagement is at a record low. Low attendance and engagement can disproportionately affect the engagement of students who need additional supports and programs like PENCIL the most. In the past, students had to report to the building and, once there, could access all the resources that came to them. Now those students have limited support structures and sometimes a school just getting a student on the phone for a wellness check is a win.
Resilience: School communities continue to grapple with the very real impact of COVID, the economy, and the current social and political climate on their students and faculty. Many students in New York City come from communities that have been disproportionately affected by illness, death, economic hardship, lack of safety, and mental health issues. The fact that they still show up for school and programs like PENCIL demonstrates incredible resilience and while we are with them it is important to continue to mentor and guide them with empathy, patience and heart.
We understand partnership sessions may feel different this year- smaller student groups, shorter sessions, more blank screens than smiling faces, and conversations in the chat rather than face to face. However, in this time of unprecedented challenge, PENCIL’s work and your participation is more critical than ever. Conversations with you around college and career help students maintain focus on goals that feel removed from their daily existence. The connections students make with volunteers can motivate them to stay engaged in class and ultimately their futures.
We are all learning and adapting our work to meet students where they are and address a new set of needs. We are also seeing our students and volunteers bring incredible grit and resilience to their work together. Your presence and energy help to deepen a sense of community and connection students need during these times and your feedback to the PENCIL team has been invaluable as we continue to refine programming.
We want to thank you for your contributions and recognize the important work you do with us at every session. Whether on any given day you work with 1, 2 or 20 students, you are making a profound impact worth that time and effort.
Gregg Betheil, President, PENCIL & Jessica Bynoe, Vice President & Chief Strategy Officer, PENCIL