What happens when all the student volunteers disappear?

WASHINGTON – When the pandemic shut down schools two years ago, Scott Losavio faced a problem that plagues students, administrators, and communities around the world: What happens when all the student volunteers disappear?

As a service coordinator at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Losavio helps students fulfill the school’s requirement to complete community service hours. Juniors must do 40 hours of “type A” volunteering, where they have direct contact with those served, and seniors must do 20.

Packing boxes at a food bank warehouse is not eligible, but serving meals at a soup kitchen is. “We want them to have real human interaction and develop a sense of passion and empathy for people who are hurting,” Losavio said.

All of that, of course, became nearly impossible when the coronavirus pandemic sent students home midway through the 2019-20 school year and kept them home for the following year as communities closed and people were to avoid direct contact.

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Now that the pandemic may be waning, school administrators plan to return to the pre-COVID-19 days of uninhibited volunteering. Not a moment too soon at Catholic high school. “I work with teenagers all day and I know what kind of jerks they are,” Losavio said. “But I also know that when they’re there to help others, that’s when they’re at their best.”

In the United States, the pandemic has forced school administrators like Losavio to reduce or eliminate student volunteer requirements. Students have given up volunteering or struggled to find safe ways to serve their communities in times of isolation and crisis.

Catholic High cut the requirement for volunteer hours in all areas in half and waived the Type A stipulation. And the definitions of what counts as volunteer work were creatively expanded.

“For the past two years, I’ve been telling the kids that as long as they serve someone who isn’t family and you don’t get paid for it, it counts towards your hours,” a said Losavio. “It was a real loss. I try to teach them to care about others.”

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The recoil hurt a lot. For communities, thousands of reliable volunteer hours have gone missing at a time of growing need. And students lost the kind of empathy-building experiences that such demands were meant to create.

“There are thousands of hours of work that are not being done and the community is not being served,” said Adam Weiss, community services coordinator for Oceana High School in Pacifica, California. For students, volunteering “gives them work experience and gives back to the community and helps them break out of their teenage bubble.”

Weiss’ school dropped its community service requirement from 100 hours to 32. Even that, he said, operates on “much more of an honor system these days.”

Even in schools with no service requirements, volunteer-oriented groups like the Key Club have faced the same problem.

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“It just kind of clicked,” said Kimberlyn Denson, a 9th grade teacher and Key Club counselor for Baton Rouge Magnet High School. “Suddenly, they had nothing left to do safely.”

His school doesn’t have a volunteer requirement, but his Key Club members have still worked to find safe ways to contribute – organizing donation drives to collect canned goods, socks and toiletries. for homeless shelters.

Outdoor volunteer activities have also become a huge draw. In December 2020, when Denson helped organize a cleanup at Louisiana’s oldest black cemetery, it drew so many student volunteers that she had to cut it down to 60 people.

“There were a few small benefits to that,” she said of those times of isolation. “Students came up with service projects that we really wouldn’t have done before.”

The community service requirement is rare at the state level, with only Maryland (and the District of Columbia) requiring it. But individual schools, both public and private, frequently institute them.

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Without real coordination when the pandemic hit, these schools and school districts had to make their own decisions about how to handle things. This also applies to the reinstatement of community service requirements.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the school district waived the state-mandated 75-hour requirement to graduate for the Classes of 2020 and 2021. For the Class of 2022, a 24-hour volunteer requirement was brought back, along with relaxed guidelines on what would qualify.

In some cases, changing policies have caused confusion. In Washington, the 100-hour requirement for a high school diploma was waived for the classes of 2020 and 2021. But this year, the city’s school system brought it back to full — meaning many current seniors are scrambling to find ways to rack up volunteer hours after doing nothing for 18 months.

Enrique Gutierrez, a spokesperson for DC Public Schools, said in an email that the school district has worked to create socially distant opportunities so students can “still make an impact even in a world with COVID.”

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Now that students are back in school buildings, opportunities for safe volunteering remain limited. Common volunteer options like homeless shelters and nursing homes remain largely closed to outsiders, and organizations like food banks have had to institute social distancing rules for indoor and warehouse work.

“A room that once housed 80 people now safely holds 20,” said Cody Jang, associate director of community engagement for the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. “A teacher just contacted me to bring 60 students, and we just didn’t have the space for them with social distancing.”

Not all schools have chosen to reduce their community service requirements during the pandemic. At Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, administrators retained the school’s 40-hour requirement for 10th graders.

“It was a decision we had to make early on – do we just remove the whole requirement?” said Alan Wesson Suarez, director of the school’s public benefit program. “I’m glad we decided to keep her.” Otherwise, “it would be sending the wrong message to our students about how we want them to be engaged.”

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But keeping the requirement in place in a mostly closed country meant getting creative.

“Suddenly we had to accommodate and adapt to students who couldn’t leave their homes,” Suarez said.

In some cases, the students themselves have imagined new forms of public service. One of them started transcribing old historical documents for the Smithsonian Institution and soon several other students joined them.

“I had never seen a student do this before,” Suarez said.

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