How My Life As a Teacher Shaped Our COVID-19 Response

By Frances Sykes

Before establishing the Pascale Sykes Foundation, I worked as a elementary and middle school school teacher. For nine years, I taught everything from first-grade remedial reading to seventh-grade math in multiple states. Though the students, location and subject matter differed year to year, every classroom I taught in had one thing in common: what happens in the home impacts outcomes at school.

I also learned that each family member’s success is linked to the success of the other members of the family – adults and children alike. When the whole family succeeds together, lasting growth occurs. To this day, these lessons learned as a teacher heavily influence how I approach our work at the Foundation.

The Pascale Sykes Foundation’s mission is to build strong families by funding collaborative efforts designed to strengthen child well-being, healthy relationships and financial stability through the Whole Family Approach. Our collaboratives partner with working families, teachers and counselors to establish consistent and helpful practices within the home, creating greater stability for families so children can achieve positive outcomes in school and families can reach their goals together.   

Our Current Challenge

Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread emotional, financial and physical instability. Schools are closed. Children are home and without a system of structure that school often provides. Parents are working remotely or not at all. Stress and anxiety are high. For working, low-income families, these changes are even more challenging than they are for stable middle class families.

To understand how we can provide the best assistance during this crisis, the Foundation asked two of our education collaboratives what they were seeing in their work with adults and children and what families need to be effective learning and working remotely. Child Connection Center is a collaboration of two school districts, a Catholic school, and a guidance center, that focuses on families of children in grades pre-K through 8. South Jersey First Star is a collaboration of First Star, Rowan College and CASA, focusing on foster children, their foster families and, when applicable, their biological families.

We heard from these collaboratives was that parents are facing a number of challenges that impact their ability to support their children’s school work:

  • Parents are expected to play a bigger role in teaching their children so they can complete assignments, but may lack technical equipment to communicate with schools or counseling support to establish balance in the home so that schoolwork can get done.
  • Some parents are working in essential jobs outside of the home, but may not have the time or the ability to supervise their child’s distance learning.
  • Many adults in service and similar industries are recently unemployed, lack  transportation or experiencing other roadblocks that can add to stress and financial instability, impacting overall well-being for the family and disrupting healthy relationships between parent and child.

Working Together in a Crisis

In response, the Pascale Sykes Foundation has taken several steps to aid our collaboratives to adjust to this crisis, promote more effective learning strategies in the home and ease the financial burden that the current crisis has caused.

Here are a four ways we are working to strengthen our community and improve family stability now and for the long term:

  • Awarded grants for technical equipment and social-emotional support. Grantee organizations are using funding to provide access to iPads or laptops, Internet services, Zoom subscriptions, mental health counseling sessions and tutoring for children and parents. 
  • Established resource libraries on the NJ Heartland and Pascale Sykes Foundation websites to provide up-to-date, user-friendly resources families need to maintain stability. Individuals, businesses and nonprofits can have free access to the latest resources, health guidelines, education developments and other helpful information.
  • Worked with New Jersey Community Capital (NJCC), our local Community Development Financial Institution, to expand the THRIVE South Jersey initiative.  This program provides immediate 0%, low-interest and forgivable loans with an application turnaround within 10 to 14 business days. The quick loans keep the small businesses and nonprofits that are integral to our community and working families up and running while they await federal funding. Our contribution was leveraged by financial institutions and the state government, resulting in even greater impact. 
  • Adjusted our evaluation grants with the Walter Rand Institute and University of Pennsylvania research teams to measure the long-range effect of this crisis on our families for insight into how future practices and policies can be improved to help families during a future crisis.

My life as a teacher taught me to always be aware of the delicate balance between school, home and work. For many working families, all three are under pressure. In times of crisis, it is more crucial than ever that families have the resources they need to provide support to each other and the children they care for.

We will continue working with our grantees to best support their efforts in to connect working, low income families with the tools and social support they need to overcome the added pressures created by the COVID-19 epidemic. Now, more than ever before, we must work together to ensure that families – and children in particular — who are disproportionately impacted by this crisis are equipped to weather this crisis. Our communities depend on it.