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Pandemic Forces Ohio School Districts To Shift Wraparound Services

Illustration of wraparound services for school-aged children. Four adults surround and put arms around two children seated at school desks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended K-12 education. It's also affected the other essential services schools have evolved to provide from food assistance to help navigating the legal system.

Over the past year, Bill Reynolds has turned to the Helen Arnold Community Learning Center for help, including rental assistance. The rideshare driver has struggled to provide for his family of six because of the pandemic – he quit driving early on out of concern for his pregnant wife.

“Even when I went back to driving every so often, not because I wanted to, but, out of necessity, I just wasn’t making a significant amount of money,” Reynolds said.

Helen Arnold is one of Akron Public Schools' two Family Resource Centers. They are hubs for wraparound services, explains Yvonne Culver, coordinator of school counsellors with the district.

“Wraparound services are those services that don’t directly tie to the classroom, but students would be unable to successfully do the academic work if they weren’t there,” Culver said.

During the pandemic, Akron Schools have connected families with services that many never needed before. But even as the need has gone up, the ability to deliver has gotten tougher because counselors and other school personnel can’t physically interact with their students.

“One of the things that I ask counselors to do is to go into the cafeteria at lunch time and notice who’s sitting alone,” Culver said. “We can’t do those kinds of things. So, it’s a little bit more difficult to see who’s isolated on a video screen.”

With distance learning, Culver says she tells her teachers to look out for students who aren’t talking, to notice those who were once engaged but are now quiet, and to connect them with school counselors.

“So, we have to find a way to build the trust so the student can share those needs so that then we have the capacity to link them with the services to fill them,” she said.

A Model For Wraparound Services

Akron’s I Promise School was built on wraparound services. Before the pandemic, parents attended GED classes down the hall from their children. The Legal Aid office worked on eviction appeals. A clinic provided health care, and families shopped the food pantry.

Victoria McGee, or “Ms. Vic” as many of the students and families know her, is the director of the school’s family resource center.

“We really look at families very holistically. We serve as a one-stop shop,” McGee said.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, the school has added the most ambitious project to date: transitional housing called the I Promise Village, and it plans to break ground on permanent living space this spring.

Big projects like these, as well as smaller services like financial coaching, go well beyond a typical school district’s budget. And they would not be possible without a partnership with the LeBron James Family Foundation.

But McGee says the foundation’s imprint goes beyond money.

“Our families, with our wraparound support services, they know when they see the logo from the LeBron James Family Foundation that it’s a no-judgment zone. What you need, if we can provide it, we're going to provide it,” she said.

Collaborating To Better Serve Families

I Promise is not the only partnership Akron Public Schools has nurtured and needed during the pandemic. It has partnered with United Way to run the family resource centers.

“With all the unfortunate things that have come with COVID, I think it’s also brought some lessons learned in innovative, more nimble ways we can serve families,” said April Porter, education coordinator with United Way.

For example, they have partnered with DoorDash to deliver food and school supplies to families. And all Akron Public School families can now access—virtually—the wraparound services that had been available just to students at the Helen Arnold and Robinson centers.

Porter says that expanding services will extend beyond the pandemic.

“I’ve been talking about our work as an ecosystem, right? An ecosystem of family engagement, partnership engagement and school engagement,” she said.

Akron plans to open a third resource center this spring, with the ultimate goal of having six resource centers to serve the entire district.

For Reynolds, the assistance that schools, such as Helen Arnold, offer to families like his is empowering and shows that they truly care.

“Everyone looks at Helen Arnold, not just as a school, but as a family,” he said.

This story is part of WKSU’s "Learning Curve,” a statewide multimedia collaborative looking at the challenges and opportunities facing public education in Ohio.

What lingering questions do you have about COVID-19 and its effects on Ohio? Ask below and WOSU may report the answer for a future story.

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