How are Fort Wayne families and schools coping with another pandemic year?

This story is part of Input Fort Wayne’s Solutions Series, made possible by support from the United Way of Allen County, the NiSource FoundationNIPSCOBrightpoint, and others in Northeast Indiana. The 10-part, 10-month series explores how our regional community is addressing residents’ essential needs during the pandemic. Read the first story here.

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For the second school year in a row, parents in Fort Wayne and around the world are sending their children back to school during a pandemic.

What’s new this fall is that pre-existing challenges with youth health, classwork, and social/emotional development have been exacerbated by the ongoing crisis, and with a lack of centralized pandemic protocols throughout the COVID-19 experience, the hurdles families are facing vary from state to state, county to county—even school to school.

Miss Nielson reads to her class during her 3-5 year old class at Children's Village, 6613 S. Anthony.

According to the WYFI Indianapolis, a vast majority of students in the state were attending class in-person during the 2020-2021 school year, but some schools did allow fully virtual or hybrid learning models. This range of responses and options contributed to youth having a variety of urgent needs this school year, depending on their situation—from getting back on track with routine vaccinations, to having affordable afterschool care, to learning critical early childhood development skills.

Here’s how three organizations in Fort Wayne are helping families and schools alleviate the stressors of back-to-school season.

Miss Nielson helps children on the playground including Zaeden, left, during her 3-5 year old class at Children's Village, 6613 S. Anthony.

Catching up on vaccinations

While discussions around vaccinations in 2021 most frequently refer to COVID-19 vaccines, there are numerous other routine immunizations that students are required to receive before attending school each year.

Due to the sheer volume of students who underwent distance learning last year, many families got behind on these vaccinations, according to Connie Heflin, the Executive Director of Super Shot.

“A lot of families fell behind on immunizations during the peak of COVID because of stay at home orders,” Heflin says. “There was a lot of fear and hesitancy to bring your kids out and possibly expose them to COVID, and then schools went to remote learning, and they still wanted students to have those immunizations, but there really wasn’t as much of a push, so now we’re trying to get kids caught up.”

Anthony gets a school vaccination from Staci Kaczmarek at Super Shot, 1515 Hobson Road.

Super Shot provides all of the CDC recommended and required immunizations for children and adults in the Fort Wayne area. In 2020, they served 13,000 children and 2,000 adults. This year with the COVID-19 vaccines, they’ll immunize more than 72,000 people, Heflin estimates.

Students are required to have immunizations against aliments such as the Chickenpox, Polio, Hepatitis and more to attend school, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. These vaccinations usually take place at multiple points in time when students are kindergarteners, sixth graders, and 16-years-old.

With multiple doses for various required vaccines, the cost of immunizations can stack up quickly, especially for families facing job loss or budget cuts during the pandemic. This is one of the many barriers Super Shot aims to break down through its services.

“If a family doesn’t have insurance, we do ask for a $15 administration fee per immunizations,” Heflin says. “But if you can’t pay that $15, we turn no body away for inability of pay. That’s just a conversation that you need to have with us. There’s no turning away anybody. Really our first priority is making sure families have access to immunizations.”

Anthony gets a school vaccination from Staci Kaczmarek at Super Shot, 1515 Hobson Road.

In Super Shot’s goal to make immunizations more accessible to those who are vulnerable and underserved in the community, there are other obstacles they face beyond cost. For parents who lack reliable transportation or paid time off, the ability to take their children to a vaccination clinic during standard office hours, Monday-Friday, can be a challenge. Super Shot is countering these obstacles by remaining open until 7p.m. and on Saturdays.

However, to reach communities with a lack of access, resources, and education about vaccinations, Heflin says Super Shot is also looking to partner with leaders and agencies that are well connected and trusted within the various communities they hope to reach. These connections have been especially important for Super Shot in vaccinating residents against COVID-19. Heflin says her team has partnered with trusted local advocates and organizations, like the Catholic Charities, to bring immunizations to apartment buildings and neighborhoods where Burmese and other residents with language or access barriers live.

“We’re doing a lot of on-site pop-up clinics trying to break down the barriers of transportation and language,” Heflin says. “There’s a lot of language barriers, but we’re working with Language Service Network (LSN) to provide interpreters and really trying to partner with trusted messengers.”

Pfizer vaccines at Super Shot, 1515 Hobson Road.

While Super Shot’s goal is to make immunizations accessible to all families, what comes with the territory of this work can be education and discussions with those who voice vaccine hesitancy.

“Vaccine hesitancy has been around; it’s not new,” Heflin says. “I think with the COVID vaccine, it’s hit a new high. There’s a portion of our population that’s not just vaccine hesitant, but they’re vaccine resistant, and unfortunately, we’re not probably going to shift their minds. But there’s a lot of other families that just have legitimate concerns and questions. That’s the group that we really want to talk to.”

Anishleidy gets a school vaccination from Staci Kaczmarek at Super Shot, 1515 Hobson Road.

Heflin says all of her team’s nurses are trained to listen to community concerns and answer questions for parents to increase the number of children who have access to vaccinations of all kinds.

“Our priority is to listen and understand what the concerns are and to really help a family understand the safety and efficacy of vaccines and how the benefits of vaccines outweigh potentially not getting your child immunized and not getting them immunized in time,” she says. 

Providing afterschool care

When the back-to-school season arrives, perhaps the most pressing concern for parents who work full-time is where to send their children for daycare and afterschool care. For many families in Fort Wayne and across the country, they turn to the YMCA.

The YMCA has an established reputation as a sports and recreation organization. However, for many families, the YMCA is predominantly known to them as their childcare provider, according to Chris Angellatta, President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne.

“We’re the largest childcare provider in the community, in the region, and in the country,” Angellatta says. “When people think of childcare, they might be thinking of early learning and not necessarily thinking of school-aged kids, but we serve about 1,600 kids a day in 38 afterschool programs. Then, in the summer, we run about seven day-camps for about 1,000 kids.”

Children work on sunflower art projects in Room A during the Y Care Program at the Parkview Family YMCA, 10001 Dawson's Creek.

Finding adequate childcare is not a new challenge in the U.S. Not only does the nation have a shortage of options, but also the options that do exist are often unattainably priced. On average, full-time daycare costs in each state are on par with annual tuition and fees at public colleges in that same state. In 33 states, childcare is actually more expensive than the cost of public college, according to American Progress. And unlike college, families often can’t get subsidies and loans to help cover childcare costs.

To help the high volume of Fort Wayne families without access to affordable childcare, the YMCA has ongoing fundraising efforts to provide families free day and/or afterschool care. In the last year, they’ve raised $400,000 in financial assistance for 650 youth, accounting for approximately 50-55 percent of participants in the Fort Wayne YMCA’s childcare system, according to Angellatta.

Lucy works on a sunflower art project in Room A during the Y Care Program at the Parkview Family YMCA, 10001 Dawson's Creek.

In the spring of 2020, the YMCA’s afterschool childcare programs were running until the day schools shut down initially in response to the pandemic. However, their doors didn’t stay shut for long. In fact, for a period of time, the YMCA’s childcare services were offered to parents who were frontline workers and healthcare responders.

As schools began to reopen, the YMCA’s childcare service further reopened, but with new challenges, Angellatta says. Since a portion of students were doing virtual learning, the number of children in their program was constantly fluctuating with changed schedules, requiring flexibility on the YMCA’s end.

The reopening of schools also required further partnership and close communication between the YMCA and local school districts—not only for pandemic protocols, but also to support students who had fallen behind academically during the pandemic, which has been a nationwide issue.

According to a report from McKinsey and Company, children grades K-12, on average, ended the 2020-21 school year approximately four to five months behind in education level for reading and math compared to a normal school year.

“Kids who were already behind in their skills just fell further behind,” Angellatta says.

Kaylee works on a sunflower art project in Room A during the Y Care Program at the Parkview Family YMCA, 10001 Dawson's Creek.

With this in mind, one of the YMCA’s major initiatives with Fort Wayne schools in 2021 is a reading intervention program for students in grades K-3 who have been struggling with their reading skills even before the pandemic.

“Reading is something that’s a long-term challenge for those K through third graders, whose last year experience was less than ideal,” Angellatta says.

For students of all ages, falling behind in schoolwork and credit hours also increased due to a significantly higher volume of absences during the 2020-21 school year.

“We saw in our truancy program a large uptick in kids who did not reengage in school when school started,” Angellatta says. “They had incomplete grades, so our team shifted to ‘how do we help some of these kids get through classes where they had incomplete grades on because they were going to get off track for graduation.’”

The YMCA has been able to provide childcare and credit recovery assistance for students who need to make up classes. They see this work as vital to maintaining healthy schools and growing minds in Fort Wayne. If they don’t help parents and teachers, who will?

“Schools are certainly working hard, but we need something bigger for kids who are already struggling,” Angellatta says.

Making up for lost time in early emotional and social development

Along with the academic challenges of back-to-school season, there are also social challenges facing families in Fort Wayne as a result of the pandemic.

Children’s Village Early Learning Center was initially created in 2006 by Lutheran Social Services to meet a need for infant and toddler childcare in South East Fort Wayne. Angie Moellering, CEO of Lutheran Social Services, says finding early childcare for this infant-to-toddler age range can be especially challenging for parents.

Since it opened, Children’s Village quickly evolved beyond providing basic childcare into also fostering the emotional and social development in young children.

Miss Nielson stretches with children including Lelan, front, during her 3-5 year old class at Children's Village, 6613 S. Anthony.

As early as six-months-old, infants’ memories and cognitive capacities begin to develop. Basic skills, such as soothing themselves when upset, sharing with others, and listening are all developed in these earlier of years of childhood, too. Proper emotional and social development to learn these skills proves crucial and to have long-lasting impacts on relationships with others, behavior, and even adult health outcomes, according to the Department of Education.

As Director of Children’s Village, Kathy Lehman sees these effects firsthand, and wants to help Fort Wayne students take advantage of this knowledge, getting on-track—and ahead—before they even enter the school system.

“Without that base and foundation in emotional health, learning becomes very difficult,” she says. “We really focus on emotional health because it’s such a critical skill for emotional development, and that skill that comes with emotional learning is really vital. Of course, emotional learning leads to brain development and how much the brain grows and matures just between birth and three years of age, too.”

Student Lelan strikes a pose while stretching during Miss Nielson's 3-5 year old class at Children's Village, 6613 S. Anthony.

As the pandemic emerged, approximately 90 percent of the world’s student population encountered some type of learning disruption, according to UNESCO. Of these more than 1.5 billion learners, those ages birth to three-years-old were not exempt. According to NAEYC, the early childhood system nearly collapsed during the pandemic with an outcry for COVID-19 financial packages to keep programs alive.

Children’s Village was thankfully able to reopen in June 2020, but Moellering says they witnessed a disruption in early development in their absence. The organization is now working to help children recover and catch up in their emotional and social development. As Lehman says, it continues to ensure kids have access to hands-on experiences, enriched environments, and expanding vocabularies, as well as the ability to self-regulate their emotions and build relationships with other children and adults through their inter-generational programs.

“Having those experiences and those learning opportunities just to engage in the environment, engage in the people and healthy positive attachments with caregivers and teachers is vital to the rest of the success that they have throughout their whole lives,” Lehman says. “If you can foster emotional health in people at a young age, you can have a better chance for success and drive in your life.”