Students around the world have been heading back to school over the past few weeks unsure what their school year will actually look like. Back in March, when Covid-19 spread across the globe at an alarming rate, classrooms closed and kids found themselves parked in front of laptops and tablets on couches and kitchen tables trying to stay on top of their studies. Just for a month, until we flatten the curve, they were told. Message boards at schools seemed frozen in time, announcing upcoming spring theater productions, prom, spring break.... Postponements quickly rolled into cancellations and students and teachers alike ended the school year without closure.
Flash forward to 2021. The school year begins now and students are faced with similar prospects. Over the summer, teachers and administrators explored options for the upcoming school year with no playbook, little guidance, and uncertainty regarding the health and safety of their students, themselves, and their own families. Around the world, kids have cautiously been going back to the classroom, even here in the United States, where the pandemic never seemed to take a break. For those who have physically returned, some are already quarantined after only one week. Whether they are in the classroom, remotely learning, or giving the hybrid plan a go, one thing is certain: field trips, service projects, competitions, recitals, plays, group projects, science lab experiments- the list seems endless...will all be severely impacted. Another school year marred by Covid.
Globally, education is in crisis. Needs are not being met, in the classroom and beyond. This is bigger than collecting backpacks full of paper, pencils, and rulers- the typical school supplies students need to return to the classroom but many families cannot afford to buy. Additionally, they now need computers, internet access, tutors, and an environment conducive to learning. School is also where vulnerable children who need help find it, possibly relief from an abusive situation at home or the day's only meal. In America alone, 35 million free or reduced meals are served during a school year. This was before coronavirus forced families to seek out food pantries for the first time in their lives.
Local school districts know their students, felt the need, and got creative. Some addressed the missed meals this past spring by bringing together school employees to make sandwiches and deliver them to their students by bus for example. But for some of our partners around the world if school isn't in session, kids aren't being fed, they aren't learning and they may never return to school. These are the challenges our partners are fighting every day, the pandemic of 2020 just amplified them.
For Sierra Leone, August marks the height of their hunger season in any given year. Food security falls to its lowest point as crops suffer during unfavorable summer weather conditions that continue to worsen as our climate becomes more extreme and unpredictable. This year, during widespread closures and food shortages brought on by Covid-19, the situation is dire.
Our partner in Sierra Leone, Village Bicycle Project is fighting back now more than ever. VBP uses our bikes to help keep girls, specifically, enrolled in school, to see them graduate and lead better lives. As poverty worsens, families hold more children back to help in the fields and at home, forcing many girls to simply drop out of school. But an education based feeding program implemented several years ago by VBP program director Karim Kamara may help change that.
For them, school is still in session. Karim partnered with a team of teachers to work through core lessons while providing meals to the students enrolled in the program. He is now in his official third year, and the program is more popular than ever. Parents saw their children fall behind when schools closed last spring, and when they heard he was offering the program again this August demand overtook supply. Karim accepted as many kids into the program as possible and this year he saw a shift....the kids were more eager to learn even without the incentive of a bowl of rice. The teachers were also excited to get back to the work they love, helping students realize their dreams in spite of a pandemic.