/Are the kids alright How Jackson students are surviving the pandemic

Are the kids alright How Jackson students are surviving the pandemic

Mississippi News Kharter is a second-grader at Galloway Elementary school in west Jackson. He’s doing a virtual grammar lesson at Stewpot After School Program and striking a ninja pose. The black facemask that he is wearing to protect against the spread the novel coronavirus gives him the perfect look. Khamiya, his classmate, finishes her schoolwork and then begs the teacher to let him go outside. She’ll be dancing on the porch in the gray, drizzley September. She hopes that her father will take her shopping at Toys R Us later. Javier and Kelvi, second and third-graders, run down the street and grab stacks of notebook papers strips — handmade money — from each other’s desks. Kelvi quickly loses interest in keeping her stash of fake money and tosses it, letting it spray the linoleum. Kelvi’s classmates rush to grab it. In the six months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, deaths, evictions, and school closings have caused immense hardship and heartache for Mississippi’s poor and Black communities. The ripple effects appear to have affected almost every aspect of daily life, except the nature of a child. They’re still learning through virtual learning. Brooke Floyd, Stewpot Community Services’ director of children’s services, said that they are still able to play. “Like, I think it’s beautiful, when you put children out in the backyard and they can’t use any equipment or have toys, they still have fun, and you can hear their laughter,” Brooke Floyd, director of children’s services at Stewpot Community Services, said. Jackson children have felt the unmet need — perhaps the most visible being a historically underfunded and segregated schools system — that the pandemic is highlighting in their communities. Nearly all Jackson Public Schools children are Black and come from low-income families, which allows them to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. After March, school buildings were not reopened. This led to a frustrating struggle to get enough E-learning technology for all students and left most families facing difficult decisions about where their children will spend their time. Unemployment benefits are decreasing and, despite a federal moratorium on evictions, they have not stopped. While efforts have been made to provide meals for children have been some of the most successful, the problem of food scarcity and affordability continues to plague the capital. The district has registered 2,600 homeless children this school year. This usually means that they live in poverty at the homes of other families. About a third of homeless students live in hotels or shelters. This is not a COVID-19 problem. Last year JPS had 3,100 students enrolled in federal McKinney-Vento grants to homeless students. Penney Ainsworth is the CEO of Boys and Girls Club of Central Mississippi. “A lot of these kids are so used to going through a lot, it kind of rolls off of them.” “Kids can adapt to any setting and whatever is going on. It’s scary. They’re anxious, but they’re resilient.” Jackson Public Schools doesn’t collect data on where children are doing their virtual schoolwork. However, many traditional afterschool programs such as Stewpot Community Services and Boys and Girls Club began operating at a reduced capacity during the day to accommodate working parents. Floyd usually has 40 students at her center in a brightly colored house near the city’s main soup kitchen. To ensure that they adhere to social distancing, the day camp only allows 20 children. These community groups are not able offer the stability and consistency of public schools. After a weekend break-in, Stewpot had Monday to cancel virtual school. While some parents work from home, it is a different, more difficult job. Many are still relying on their grandparents, aunts and cousins to care for their children. Floyd stated that some families are uncomfortable with the idea that their children would be placed in a center during a pandemic. This is especially true when you consider the number of deaths from the virus among Black people. They’ve done everything they can to keep their children home, even changing their work schedules. Floyd and Ainsworth stated that they are in touch with many families they aren’t serving at this time. Floyd stated that they know they can call them if they need help. But child services coordinators are also aware of the fact that some children may not be receiving the support they need. Floyd said she was able to meet children this summer that she hadn’t seen before, while delivering food bags to apartments where her students lived. “Kids ran towards the van. They asked Floyd through tears, “Can we have a backpack?” I was like, “Oh my God. Who are you? She asked, “What’s your name?” We help the children right in front of our eyes, but if we work with children, it’s like, “What’s happening for the other kids?” Who is helping them? Who is monitoring them? She said, “If I do everything I can to ensure my children’s survival, unfortunately sometimes I will have to leave them.” Anna Wolfe (left/top) Some Jackson Public Schools fourth, fifth and sixth graders are conducting their virtual learning in a classroom at the Boys and Girls Club Capitol Street on Sept. 21, 2020. Right/bottom Johnathan Thomas is a Mississippi Department of Transportation construction estimator and a Club volunteer who oversees the class. He initially offered to help, thinking he could make use of the time. But, as a student in his class was without a laptop, and was completing her lesson paper packets, he decided to let her use his computer. To make up the difference, he’ll be working in the evenings. Thomas stated, “I think JPS children are well-adapted… The ones who go here, I believe they’re pretty well-rounded and well-disciplined… Everyone’s respectful, and that’s all that I can really ask for.” Jackson Public Schools will still offer breakfast and lunch for students during closures. This has been a huge help to the private schools. Ainsworth explained that the district doesn’t subside these programs. This leaves most of the responsibility for the school’s physical operations — such as staffing, sanitation, and maintaining the lights — to community partners. Bobby Brown, the principal of Jim Hill High School in West Jackson, said that school is a safe environment for many of their students. “Not being able to have that safe space and be with friends and share experiences and that whole socio-educational aspect of schooling has all our hearts heavy.” Students who have secured devices for distance learning have not been able to access their classes. Mississippi Today spoke with Keiyana, a fifth-grader at Casey Elementary School. She said that she has had trouble accessing WiFi and other services because the computer shuts down sometimes. Khamiya, a 7-year old, stated that she has missed class once because she did all her schoolwork online. Online is not something I like. I prefer to learn in the classroom. Khamiya stated that although I enjoy it in-person, I don’t want corona. “Whoever created it (the virus), I don’t know but it shouldn’t have been made.” However, top childhood development experts aren’t worried about the effects of COVID-19 or distance learning on a child’s ability to follow school curriculum. Susan Buttross is a professor of child developmental at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and leads Mississippi Thrive! Child Health Development Project said that she is more concerned about the loss of positive adult reinforcement and social connections. Buttross stated that it’s not because we believe kids can’t learn online. People are struggling to make enough money to live. They also struggle with other social determinants of their health like being able access to the right food, jobs, housing, and so on. Many times the primary caregiver at home doesn’t have the necessary skills to be the teacher. Anxiety over the virus or grief over the death of a family member only adds to the stress that children living in poverty are already subjected to. Buttross said that while temporary stress is normal, toxic stress can cause brain damage and disrupt a child’s ability to function properly. Research has shown that toxic stress from poverty, such as economic hardships, racial disparity, the deaths of loved ones, or living in an area with violence, can affect the brain’s decision-making part. Khamiya stated that her family moved into an apartment building in Jackson west recently because they felt it was safer. “We’ve been discussing community. It’s where people work and play,” Khamiya stated. She then answered her question about west Jackson’s community. West Jackson has a greater concentration of homeless people than any other part of the city. This gives Khamiya a greater visibility. She asked the reporter, “Do you ever feel sorry for homeless people?” “They need money. I felt sad. They need a home. They must feel safe.” Anna Wolfe Black Mississippians are disproportionately affected by the nation’s wealth imbalance. They are three times more likely than whites to be in poverty, and they also experience higher rates of grief due to national crises. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll found that nearly one-third of Black Americans had known someone who died from COVID-19. This, along with the national spotlight on policies brutality, has created a crisis in Black America. Marissa Evans wrote in a recent The Atlantic article. Floyd’s program saw two siblings lose their mother in June. Floyd claimed that she was in her thirties when she died. She did not believe her mother was sick. A second former student, who was not even twenty-years old, committed suicide this summer after getting into the criminal justice system. Stewpot’s bus driver, who was also a victim of the pandemic, died from cancer just as it began. They were devastated. They couldn’t have a funeral service because of social distancing. Floyd stated that people can’t grieve properly right now. Floyd said that it’s almost as if people can’t grieve right now. But toxic stress researchers have found ways to increase resilience for children facing adversity. Buttross stated that the one thing that is consistent is to have one adult in their lives who is positive and a source of light for them. They need someone who supports them and encourages them. You’re smart. You’re awesome. You can do anything. It could be a grandparent, teacher, or volunteer at the after school program. Ainsworth, the local Boys and Girls Club CEO said that she grew up in public housing in Norfolk, Virginia with a single mother and eight siblings. “My four blocks in the world didn’t define me or who I would become. Ainsworth stated that this is what she wanted for her Boys and Girls Club children. I need them to understand that the current situation you are in is not a good one. However, if you look at your future, you keep being exposed (to opportunities)… through workforce developmental, college tours and other things, the sky’s the limit for you too.” The pandemic has simultaneously produced a flood in resources and people who are eager to help. Floyd stated that Floyd hoped that people in crisis will realize that there is almost a flood of support available right now. This goes beyond federal pandemic relief packages. It includes large investments in internet connectivity for schoolchildren, devices for school children, food and unemployment benefits, extra money for housing assistance, and large investments for internet connectivity. Jackson Public Schools saw a 70% increase in their McKinneyVento grant for homeless students. Some of these students also receive Stewpot services. Faith Strong, the district’s coordinator of homeless services, stated that she hopes to hire more social worker who can address students’ individual needs. The district was helped by the Mississippi Food Network, which partnered with it to distribute food boxes that contained enough fresh and frozen foods for several days. In the beginning, Meals on Wheels, the City of Jackson and the Boys and Girls Club partnered and distributed approximately 20,000 meals throughout the city. Floyd stated that there were only churches standing in line, handing out boxes to anyone who came. “It’s been a proud moment to witness it all.” Dole Packaged Foods, an affiliate of one of the largest fruit and vegetable producers in the world, chose Jackson to be the first city where it would take its Sunshine for All program, which aims at combating food insecurity. According to the company, Mississippi’s capital was one of the most dangerous food deserts in the country. Dole has been hosting a farmer’s market at Capitol Street, where customers can buy fresh produce from Footprint Farms. Anna Wolfe “My daughter and I have greatly benefited from being able give back on Saturdays, in addition to the meals.” Ebony Yarn is a volunteer and an employee of the Club. “It has been a huge help to me, because I’m single parent.” “I am in the middle of the gap, where I make too little to receive assistance, but then I don’t have enough to handle all the things I have to do,” said Ebony Yarn, a Club employee and volunteer. Dole also supports Up in Farms’ Farm to Table Training Center, providing 1,000 meals to the hungry; launching a virtual cooking camp to teach kids nutrition and cooking; and planting community gardens at Boys & Girls Club locations. Ainsworth stated, “It’s really unfair that the Jackson kids are limited in fresh fruits or vegetables or opportunities to get them in a store and pick it up and then it comes from the vine.” However, if they walk down to Madison County, the food is being washed and set down as they speak. It’s fresh.” Jackson’s poverty rate is eight times greater than Madison’s 3.3%. These food programs are more than just nutrition for Ainsworth. Ainsworth stated, “What I want is to make sure that we are exposing my kids to the idea that you are worthy to have whatever you desire.”