As more students return to in person learning, many for the first time since the pandemic shutdown last spring, United South End Settlements (USES) is running its after school program, club48, at full capacity this fall.
The Sun spoke with USES Co-Executive Director José F. Massó to learn more about USES programming and how it operates, as well as how the organization is keeping students and staff safe as cases continue to rise due to the Delta variant.
Massó said that when the pandemic first hit in 2020, USES was “able to support children and families virtually” during that initial period. In July of last year. USES opened for full day programming, which he said “was not a problem.“ Children were placed in pods and had a safe place to complete their virtual schoolwork while their parents returned to work.
He said that the program was able to support “children who were in different classrooms and different schools…this was a whole new ballgame for us. Staff had to learn on the fly,” as well as be able to communicate with families and teachers to coordinate it all.
He said that the decision to return to full capacity for the after school program this school year was made in part because “the need was there for sure,” and parents needed a place for their kids to go while they were still at work. Because USES had already been operating during the pandemic, it was prepared to handle more kids as it had already been doing so with other programs, he said.
“Even with COVID, with the variant, recognizing..we know somewhat how to be able to manage this,” he said.
Massó said that nearly every single staff member has been vaccinated, and weekly testing for staff has been conducted since early spring.
On site at USES, regular sanitation and cleaning is still in place as it has been over the past year. Massó said one other challenge that this school year poses is that kids have returned to full-time in person learning, which requires “clear communications” from schools regarding any positive tests within school communities and ensuring that proper quarantining and isolation is happening where necessary.
Additionally, families are notified when their child has been a close contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, and the USES program community is notified when a member of the community has tested positive, he said.
The mask mandate is in effect, and USES follows all other guidelines put forth by the state regarding COVID-19, Massó said, including limiting touch points and entering the building one way and exiting another.
“We have been operating this way for this past year,” he said, and the staff has become accustomed to this way of operation.
During the summer program, students participated in talent shows, as well as an entrepreneurship activity where they put together a business plan to sell products.
“Since I’ve been here, this has been one of our best summers,” Massó said.
Club48 was back in session as of September 13, and Massó said that both new students and returning students have joined USES’ early childhood education program as well, which serves children ages three months through five years. He said there were “a lot of happy tears” shed on Monday, adding that staff were happy to see some of the children they hadn’t seen in a long time.
“It felt pretty close to normal, to be honest with you,” he said. There was positive energy from the students, who were happy to talk about their classes. “You could hear the laughter; hear the enjoyment,” Massó said.
USES’ programs “focus on the social and emotional aspect” of being a student, especially in the face of the pandemic when so many students were stripped of the opportunity to learn in a classroom setting amongst their peers for so many months.
Club48 focuses on a STEAM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—curriculum, which Massó said “truly makes us unique.” He said that students focus on different STEAM projects that are incorporated into work they do in their classes at school.
“These are things that really inspire our students,” Massó said.
Massó also talked about USES’ Family Mobility initiative, which he said includes a “basic income program” and a STEP (Striving Towards Economic Prosperity) program, as well as provides coaching and resources along with events and opportunities to engage families. He said that by offering this program, USES is showing its support for families and children.
The excitement around the beginning of the school year was felt at USES this week, and Massó said that kids are eager to return to some “regular activities” after more than a year with so much uncertainty.
For more information on USES and the programs it offers, visit uses.org.