WASHINGTON – When the pandemic closed schools two years ago, Scott Losavio faced a problem affecting students, administrators and communities everywhere: What happens when all student volunteers go missing?
As coordinator of services at the Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Losavio helps students meet the school’s requirement for community service. Young people have to do 40 volunteer hours of Type A, where they have direct contact with the people served, and adults have to do 20.
The packaging of boxes in a food bank’s warehouse does not meet the requirements, but the serving of dishes in a soup kitchen meets. “We want them to have real human interaction and to develop a sense of passion and empathy for people who are suffering,” Losavio said.
All of this, of course, became almost impossible when the coronavirus pandemic sent students home in the midst of the 2019-2020 school year and left them at home for next year, as communities were closed and people were told to avoid direct contact. .
Now that the pandemic is potentially ending, school administrators expect to return to the days of unhindered volunteering before COVID-19. Not a moment early at the Catholic High School. “I work with teenagers all day and I know what idiots they are,” Losavio said. “But I also know that when they’re there and helping other people, they’re at their best.”
In the United States, the pandemic has forced school administrators like Losavio to reduce or eliminate the requirement for student volunteers. Students either abandoned volunteering or worked hard to find safe ways to serve their communities in times of isolation and crisis.
Catholic High halved the requirement for volunteer hours and abandoned the Type A clause. And the definitions of what qualifies as volunteering are creatively stretched.
“Basically, for the last two years, I’ve been telling the kids that as long as they serve someone who isn’t a family and you don’t get paid for it, it counts in your class,” Losavio said. “It was a real loss. I’m trying to get them to learn how to take care of other people.”
The retreat hurt widely. For communities, thousands of credible volunteer hours have disappeared in a time of growing need. And the students lost the empathy-building experiences that such demands were meant to create.
“There are thousands of hours of work not done and the community is not served,” said Adam Weiss, public services coordinator for Oceana High School in the Pacific, California. For students, volunteering “gives them work experience and brings them back to the community and helps them get out of their teenage bubble.”
Weiss’s school has reduced its community service requirements from 100 hours to 32. Even that, he said, is working on “a much more system of honor these days.”
Even in schools without service requirements, volunteer-oriented groups such as Key Club face the same problem.
“Everything just failed,” said Kimberlyn Denson, a ninth-grade teacher and Key Club advisor at Baton Rouge High School. “Suddenly there was nothing to do safely.”
Her school does not require volunteers, but Key Club members are still working to find safe ways to contribute – organizing donations to collect canned goods, socks and toiletries for homeless shelters.
Outdoor volunteering has also become a huge attraction. In December 2020, when Denson helped clean up Louisiana’s oldest black cemetery, it attracted so many student volunteers that she had to cut it off for 60 people.
“There were some small advantages to that,” she said of those times of isolation. “Students came up with some service projects that we really wouldn’t have done before.”
The requirement for community service is a rarity at the state level, with only Maryland (and the District of Columbia) requiring it. But individual schools, both public and private, often create them.
Without real coordination when the pandemic struck, these schools and school districts had to make their own decisions about how to deal with things. This also applies to the restoration of the requirements for community service.
In Prince George County, Maryland, the school district waived the state requirement for 75 hours to complete the 2020 and 2021 classes. For the 2022 class, the 24-hour volunteer requirement was returned, along with relaxed guidelines on what will qualify. .
In some cases, policy changes have caused confusion. In Washington, the 100-hour high school graduation requirement has been lifted for graduating classes in 2020 and 2021. But this year, the city’s school system has brought it back completely – meaning many current seniors are struggling to find ways to volunteer. after doing nothing for 18 months.
Enrique Gutierrez, a spokesman for public schools in DC, said in an email that the school district has worked to create socially remote opportunities so that students “can still make an impact even in a world with COVID.”
Now that students have returned to school buildings, opportunities for safe volunteers remain limited. Common options for volunteers such as homeless shelters and nursing homes remained largely closed to outsiders, and organizations such as food banks had to introduce rules for social distancing for indoor and warehouse work.
“A room that once accommodated 80 people now safely accommodates 20,” said Cody Zhang, associate director of community engagement for the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. “A teacher just contacted me wanting to bring in 60 students, and we just didn’t have room for them with social distancing.”
Not every school chose to reduce its demands for community service during the pandemic. At Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, administrators maintained the school’s 40-hour requirement for 10th grade.
“It was a decision we had to make early – should we just remove the whole requirement?” Said Alan Wesson Suarez, the school’s program director for public purposes. “I’m glad we decided to keep it.” Otherwise, it would be sending the wrong message to our students about how we want to get involved. ”
But keeping the requirement in a mostly closed country meant getting creative.
“Suddenly we had to settle in and adapt to students who couldn’t leave their homes,” Suarez said.
In some cases, the students themselves invented new forms of public service. One began copying old historical documents for the Smithsonian Institution, and several other students soon joined.
“I’ve never seen a student do that before,” Suarez said.
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What happens when all student volunteers disappear?
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