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Communities everywhere have been grappling with how to help children learn during the pandemic, while keeping them healthy and safe. 

A recent study by United Way's partner, McKinsey & Co., estimates that the shift to remote school in the U.S. has set students of color back by three to five months, compared to a lag of one to three months for white students. The academic losses are accumulating this school year, experts say.

As we near the end of our second pandemic school year, many educators, students and parents are struggling to achieve essential educational milestones. Students of color from low-wage families are disproportionately at risk of learning loss, compounded by the gaping digital divide. COVID sharpened this divide, with many disadvantaged students of color lacking internet access, personal computers, access to software, and other resources. 

Supporting Academic Achievement in Atlanta 

Even in normal years, students in under-resourced communities struggle to retain what they’ve learned during school breaks. Without academic enrichment during the summer, too many low-income students of color return to school behind. 

Based in Metro Atlanta’s Tri-Cities area, Future Foundation is a longtime partner of under-performing South Fulton schools. The foundation works with students of color who are at risk for dropping out, including those who have repeated grades, are behind in English and math, or are experiencing discipline or attendance issues. 

This year, Future Foundation’s summer programming got a boost through financial support from the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, a joint effort between Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and United Way of Greater Atlanta. The grant helped fund efforts to prevent summer slide through virtual academic and enrichment support, and also connected food-insecure students to healthy meals. 

Over the summer, Future Foundation deployed buses three days a week for meal deliveries in partnership with its U.S. Department of Agriculture meal provider. It also connected families with resources available through federal food assistance and the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Since many area students lack hardware or Internet connectivity for today’s academics, Future Foundation created a virtual lending library to better equip students for distance learning. During schools’ physical closures, the foundation connected with teachers to understand their lesson plans and lend support to student learning through daily virtual tutoring. 

“Future Foundation gave my son a routine and helped him with his homework,” one mom said of her 13-year-old. “His grades have drastically changed.”

Business Leaders Getting Masks to Under-Resourced Schools in U.S.

While in-person instruction varies across the country, one thing is certain: masks matter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cloth masks in schools can help slow the spread of the coronavirus, along with other mitigation strategies like hand-washing, social distancing, and regular cleansing and disinfecting of frequently-touched surfaces in schools and buses.

But keeping students, teachers, and staff safe requires adequate resources. A typical school district with about 3,700 students needs about $1.8 million to reopen, according to some estimates. That covers cleaning, extra staff, and masks.  But many schools serving high percentages of low-income children have had to scramble for essential supplies. Schools in high-poverty districts are historically underfunded, and families can’t make up the difference. Too often, teachers use their own resources to provide basics for America’s most vulnerable children.

That’s why United Way Worldwide partnered with the Business Roundtable and the CDC Foundation in late 2020 to launch America’s Mask Challenge, an effort to underwrite and deliver 200 million washable face masks to every student, teacher, and staff member in America’s 56,000 most under-resourced schools. HanesBrands, the first company to join the Challenge, is producing the masks and coordinating with United Way on delivery. Hanes donated 25 million masks to the Challenge, and is delivering directly to schools. Other corporate leaders, like Progressive Insurance, Nasdaq, Union Pacific and Vistra Corp., have stepped, too up. And leading education organizations, like the National School Boards Association, AFT (American Federation of Teachers) and NEA (National Education Association), have endorsed America's Mask Challenge.

So far, we’ve gotten almost 26 million masks to 158 school districts from across 45 states and Puerto Rico. This represents more than 5.2 million people who have received five reusable masks to support their safe return to the classroom. Some 126 local Uniited Ways have helped fuel the disribution as well. In the words of one North Carolina school leader, the delivery of 97,500 masks in January was “a dream come true." Said Ryan O'Donnell, with Austin's schools, “These masks are so essential for our students, staff, and families, so we plan to put them to good use. Support from the community like this is what keeps a school district afloat.” ​


Narrowing the Digital Divide for Youth Globally 

Achievement and opportunity gaps fueled by the worldwide digital divide existed long before COVID-19. But as the forced students into virtual learning, these inequities were exposed. UNICEF says two-thirds of school-aged students across the world lack internet access at home. 

Across the globe, local United Ways are working to enhance digital inclusivity by focusing on access to technology, access to broadband service, and enhanced technological literacy.

In the U.S., the digital divide disproportionately hurts students of color and those from low-wage families. Pew Research Center reports nearly 25% of Black teens said they couldn’t complete homework because they lacked internet service or a computer at home. Some 40% of Hispanic teens reported having to do their assignments on a cellphone. United Way is helping to bridge this gap. In Jackson, Mississippi, United Way of the Capital Area directed COVID funds to underwrite internet service for low-wage families. United Way of Metro Chicago joined forces with Chicago Public Schools, the city, and others to raise $47 million for high-speed internet for 100,000 families with children. 

It's a global problem. Distance learning has been challenging for vulnerable communities in Hungary, including students, parents, and teachers who lack access to the digital resources and skills needed to learn virtually. Through United Way Hungary’s ‘United to Help’ initiative, 248 children received donated computers to support virtual learning, and 456 teachers improved their digital skills through the program's educational webinars.

United Way Worldwide is partnering with Extreme Networks, school systems, corporate partners, and local governments to provide Wi-Fi and hardware access to communities most in need. Check out this blog from United Way Worldwide for more on our efforts to narrow the digital divide.

Philanthropy Cloud Helps Deloitte Make an Impact During COVID 

Throughout 2020, Deloitte professionals were motivated to make an impact in the fight against COVID. Through professionals’ volunteer efforts and financial support, communities where they live and work had access to virtual learning tools, food, housing support, and other basic needs.

These efforts were enabled thanks to Deloitte’s adoption of Salesforce.org Philanthropy Cloud, a technology platform from Salesforce and available through United Way that inspires and empowers social change. Deloitte went online with Philanthropy Cloud in 2019, and worked hand-in-hand with United Way to curate volunteer and giving opportunities across its U.S. offices.

When the pandemic hit a year ago, Philanthropy Cloud was the prime access point for Deloitte’s professionals to find out how they could help in real time. The tool provides easy ways to identify and research opportunities. Deloitte harnessed the inspiration of its professionals and helped them support the people and communities who needed it the most.

Fueled by Philanthropy Cloud and its collaboration with United Way, Deloitte was better able to provide a safe and efficient way throughout 2020 to take meaningful action. It also helped Deloitte’s CSR leaders underscore the powerful message that everyone can make an impact every day.


Innovating to Boost Virtual Learning in Colombia 

If only COVID-19’s massive geographic reach was where it ended: more than 200 countries and territories with diagnoses, more than 121 million people infected and 2.68 million lives lost in the first year.

But the pandemic’s impact is broad, and deep. In pre-pandemic Colombia, only 44% of children graduated grade school. With COVID causing additional challenges for students and teachers, United Way Colombia worked to ensure children could continue their education at home. 

United Way extended psychological and socio-emotional support to 3,350 teachers and 114,000 students and their families. This support included tools for kids, tips for parents and teachers, and virtual teacher training on creativity. United Way also created the “Virtual Maker Lab” to boost teachers’ effectiveness in distance learning, using platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and mass media. To help parents, United Way developed videos and images to spark children’s creativity while also offering mental health benefits like meditation, music and reading. 

Around the world, United Ways continue to build the bridges that meet ever-evolving needs among youth and their families during this pandemic.

Helping Families & Children Cope in Mexico

In Mexico, more than 55% of its residents depend on informal jobs for their income. COVID has exacerbated this. Fondo Unido-United Way Mexico is helping struggling families with more support for health, well-being, and childhood development. United Way offers psychological support through digital content designed for children and for people with disabilities. Its educational kits support children’s physical, emotional, and neurological development, while its nutrition and hygiene kits help struggling families with young children, along with refugee and migrant children, cope with COVID.

3M Supports Students in Ghana With Home Literacy 

The closure of schools and educational facilities during the pandemic has been a challenge to educators and students across the globe. With the support of 3M, United Way Ghana has enrolled 4,270 children in its Home Literacy Project to mitigate the impact of school closures, particularly for children in vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.

Observing safety protocols, trained volunteers teach lower primary school pupils in their homes to improve their literacy skills in reading and comprehension. Parents, guardians, and older siblings are empowered to assist the children to learn at home on days when volunteers were not present, to keep their learning on track.

The stories made available to these young learners depict the current world situation in a way that children can easily understand. After a few minutes of reading, the volunteer tests the comprehension skills of the young learners by asking them questions on what they read and provides the learner with an opportunity to ask questions. But it's a lesson in COVID, too, as volunteers use grade level-appropriate booklets with information about the virus about COVID-19.

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