The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for young people and staff at youth-serving organizations that provide education and training, employment, and mental health services. Challenges are more pronounced for youth who may lack access to digital devices and conducive learning environments or who must balance program participation, work, and family responsibilities. This resource guide for practitioners describes creative strategies that youth-serving organizations have used to provide remote services while prioritizing equity.
We conducted interviews with 21 staff members at youth-serving organizations and programs about how to equitably deliver remote services. Remote service delivery can potentially expand access to services and make them more affordable, meaning the lessons learned now are relevant beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
For each of the following strategies that emerged from the interviews, we identify key issues, challenges, and promising practices and tips, especially as they pertain to advancing equity for marginalized populations.
- Create the foundation for success. Youth programs can facilitate access to safe spaces to work, provide digital skills training, and leverage internal funding to advance access to Wi-Fi and technology resources. Organizations can also use creative ways to offer resources and supports to cover basic needs. Further, program staff can adjust their expectations and be mindful of young people’s potential barriers to participation.
- Strengthen organizational and staff capacity to meet new demands. Staff also need resources to support remote learning. These can include training and supporting staff on how to effectively teach virtually in addition to shifting recruitment, enrollment, and onboarding paperwork to online processes. Organizations should also create supports for staff to have enough space and time to properly take care of their own mental health, such as safe debriefing spaces with leadership, self-care initiatives, and wellness checks.
- Provide services that support mental and emotional health. Youth organizations can offer a variety of communication outlets for youth to seek support, such as partnering with or hiring mental health professionals or providing mental health services through technology. Services such as e-mentorship programs and group or individual counseling can provide continuity so that caring connections with adults can persist even remotely.
- Build community. Organizations should engage in intentional and active communication with participants. If young people feel that staff are invested in them, they are more likely to build new relationships, share their voice, and exert power and influence. Staff should be proactive in making the virtual space fun and foster a sense of community to ensure this is a space where young people want to be.
- Ensure instruction is engaging. Engaging instruction is crucial for students’ learning, participation, and academic achievement. With youth input, programs can design interactive and intentional curriculum that is relevant, engaging, and fun. Organizations should consider using a combination of teaching models—such as classes students can take at their own pace or classes that are partially online, partially in person—to embed flexibility and balance into the program. Young people may be more willing to engage in shorter, staggered, and smaller classes.
- Adapt experiential and work-based learning to the virtual environment. Work-based learning can include job shadowing, career mentorship, internships, and other forms of paid work. These opportunities can connect youth with work experiences for in-demand occupations and can be done remotely. Staff can create additional opportunities for career exposure through virtual job fairs or information panels that allow youth to connect with professionals at low or no cost to the program.
Other promising practices and tips are described in greater detail in the report.
Implications for Organizations, Funders, and Policymakers
The experiences of the organizations and programs we interviewed offer lessons for other youth-serving organizations, funders, and policymakers to realize the goals of equity, expanded access, and improved outcomes for youth.
- Organizations should use an equity-centered approach that considers the specific histories, challenges, and strengths of the various youth populations being served. By leveraging internal funding and resources, organizations should create opportunities for young people to help shape programming and consider a combination of virtual teaching models and support staff in the transition to remote services.
- Funders should provide resources to support research, partnerships, and programming to help make the case for additional public investment. Flexible funding can support the development of tools, resources, and opportunities for peer learning and professional development across youth-serving organizations. Staff development and training should also be an allowable expense, if not a priority.
- Policymakers should invest in the public education system and public programs to develop young people’s digital skills, enabling them to more readily access education, training, employment, and other services. Policymakers should also take steps to expand internet access to effectively allow youth to participate in remote services.