Arlington, VA

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

News articles and social media chatter are inundated with information and discussion about back-to-school plans for this fall.

Arlington Public Schools has decided that all students will begin the 2020-2021 school year virtually. Teachers have spent much of their summer vacation working to convert their in-class instruction to virtual formats and are “heading back to the classroom” next week for training and final preparations to begin the year.

Most reports and discussions focus on such issues as the safety or logistics of returning to the classroom, the quality of virtual instruction, and screen time. One will also find frequent expressions of concern about the socioemotional well-being of students, yet one will struggle to find many specific ideas for addressing students’ social needs outside the virtual classroom or the role extracurricular clubs can play despite school buildings being closed.

Fortunately, sports leagues have made decisions regarding organized athletics and APS is currently considering guidelines for other extracurricular clubs and student activities. How — or if — a club will proceed likely depends upon the nature of the club as well as the determination of the club leaders to make it happen. Knowing that teachers — who comprise the majority of club sponsors — are rightfully focused on planning and training for the virtual classroom, parents and students could use this time to turn their attention toward ways to adapt clubs for a socially distanced school year. Students may have some of the best and most creative ideas as to how to transform their traditional group into an active, community-strengthening, pandemic-era extracurricular activity.

This new environment may provide an opportunity for community organizations or private business enterprises to become more involved in schools or for individual families to form groups among themselves for their own children. However, it is important to continue offering accessible, free, school-based extracurricular opportunities for students. Organized sports are a primary driver of school pride; but extracurricular clubs and activities expand the number of students engaged outside the classroom. They bring students together, build friendships, form memories, spark passions and careers, and help shape the school community’s character, spirit, and sense of school pride.

Given the likelihood that any club or activity will begin the year virtually like everything else, this is the perfect time to take inventory of existing clubs at each school, begin visioning how these groups will function this coming year, and consider potential new groups.

If there are clubs at one school that do not exist at another, consideration should be given to opening membership to students at other schools where a similar club may not be offered and how those students can continue to participate upon returning to an in-person school schedule. Merging clubs from different schools can foster a broader sense of community. Joining forces may increase participation or even strengthen the impact of some clubs such as those with a community service or environmental focus. At the same time, opening membership or joining forces can help chip away a bit of the opportunity disparities across the district.

It is often left to students to recruit members and solicit a sponsor to create a club. To ensure the clubs they are interested in will be offered this coming year students should:

  1. Consider ways to publicize the club and recruit members, appeal to administration and solicit potential teachers to sponsor them;
  2. Think creatively about ways to adapt club activities, meetings, and publicity efforts within a modified format to ensure members are engaged and the club remains active;
  3. Offer and solicit ideas for new clubs or activities.

Even though the onus is typically on the students to seek out an activity of interest and to become involved, current times call for all hands on deck. Outreach from the school administration and especially from a club’s sponsor and leaders is extremely valuable and can make the difference in the group’s success in a new format and new social environment. It may even be the factor that determines whether the club exists at all this coming school year. Therefore:

  1. Teachers and club sponsors should reach out to students and encourage them to participate.
  2. Schools should hold virtual activities fairs which may be particularly helpful for new students, but also for existing students who have not been active outside the classroom and who may be in need of or searching for social connections, new interests, or ways to pursue current interests.
  3. School administration and club leaders should commit to broadly communicating regularly updated information about active clubs to the student body and the parent community by prominently listing this year’s active clubs on the school website and via PT(S)A listservs and other school communication mechanisms. Existing lists on websites should designate whether or not each club is active this year. If not, guidance for how to potentially make the club active should be posted.
  4. Information about APS-issued guidelines and the school’s specific plans for ensuring after-school club opportunities should be included in new student orientation and back-to-school-night materials.

APS will not be mandating that any given club be offered or continue to operate – it will likely only provide parameters for club operations. Therefore:

  • PT(S)As should make supporting and promoting extracurricular clubs a main focus of their agenda throughout this year;
  • Students who have previously been active in a club should proactively work to ensure their club continues this year; and
  • Past sponsors of clubs should actively publicize and recruit members to ensure their club continues to offer students who may really need such an opportunity a chance to be involved.

Our teachers have a lot of learning of their own to do as they adapt to online instruction and strive to make it engaging and effective. That should be their priority. Meanwhile, parents and students can help on the equally important extracurricular side. So, let’s rally together, get creative, and reach out to school administrators and club sponsors to plan for how their clubs are going to operate — not if.

Maura McMahon is the mother of two children in Arlington Public Schools. An Arlington resident since 2001, McMahon has been active in a range of County and school issues. She has served on the Thomas Jefferson, South Arlington, and Career Center working groups and is the former president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

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