How COVID impacted Teen afterschool programming on Cortes Island

During the last week of November, a health officer stopped Teen Szene as it was a hang out, not a sports program. We spoke about the need these programs fill, and Jodi’s thoughts on the process of adapting to COVID 19 reality. 

Photo credit: Smelt Bay on Cortes Island via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Jodi Peters: I’m the youth programs manager for the Cortes community health association and the Cortes Community Health Association, or the CCHA runs the community health center on Cortes, which staffs doctors. And it also runs youth programming and family and just general community wellbeing programming as well. So I manage the youth programs and right now we have four of them, from ages started at age of seven, all the way up to teenagers and then in age 17. And, we offer those programs in two to three year chunks so that we can offer developmentally appropriate programming for younger kids and, preteens and teenagers. And then we also have a sports and after-school sports program. 

Odette: What happened in March, when COVID-19 entering our lives? Could you walk us through these different stages in afterschool programming, and what that looks like from your end. 

Jodi: Well, for, for myself, for our programs, when schools shut down, we pretty much immediately had to shut down. Three of the, four of our programs were dependent on access to the school and, and with all of the efforts being made by the community and public health to, you know, to get everybody to shut down a lot of the contact and connection to school, we realized that our programs, were basically under that same rule. And so we, we shut them down completely right at spring break, I guess it was. So it was mid-March and then we did not start them. We were waiting for schools to be allowed to reopen cause we were after-school specifically. And we depend a lot on our relationship with the public school on Cortez. We really couldn’t do very much without the school being active and open as well as that was a really good guideline of where the public health orders were at. If they weren’t allowing schools to be open, then a program like ours, which involves groups of children and youth with facilitators was probably also not allowed 

Odette: I’m wondering, about public health regulation and how that includes sports, considering the well-being for children, not just physical health- also the emotional social connection. 

Jodi: Yeah, I didn’t do this before, but the mandate of our program is to offer free, accessible, inclusive, and equitable programming for all the children on Cortez Island. And we do that because we want to offer children a safe, supervised,  but different than school place to meet and, and be with their peers and support their autonomy, their resilience, the development of their self-esteem, their confidence, their empathic skills. And, and the reason why our programs are quite important on Cortez is there’s a large population of homeschoolers on Cortez.  , and then there is a pretty active, small public school and those kids don’t often get to see each other as often,  as they would like. And so our programs offer again a free drop-in program that offers a safe supervised space. And we try to enrich it with facilitators that can build relationships with the kids as well as help the kids bridge a lot of the different,  , backgrounds and different family structures and all the sorts of the differences on this Island, which can be very exacerbated in a small community. 

Our programs can offer a little bit of a, a space for kids to see a model of inclusion,  , of people that are different from ourselves or families that make different choices from other families that we can still be friends. We can still be kind and respectful. And to me, that’s one of the, one of the main features that is unique to our programs on Cortez,  , that we offer. And, and I think it’s been the way things have gone down with the pandemic and often no more play dates are happening and,  , kids are going to school and then they’re staying at home. That whole situation has actually become even more extreme because kids at school not seeing, they’re only seeing the kids that are middle school and that’s even dropped as well as some families choose not to send their kids to school. 

So it’s a really limited children and youth social sphere.  And so we didn’t reopen the programs all through April, May and June and school open for three weeks at the end of June, but we couldn’t get ourselves together to start for such a short time. So we were waiting. And then in September,  we, we did,  some pretty interesting adaptations to, to get the program started because we were getting a lot of feedback from parents in the community that they really were hoping that something would be happening from a lot of feedback from certain parents of teens and a lot of feedback from younger, from families of younger kids as well.  That’s why we, we, we moved some things around to offer programming. We were able to offer it basically in September, October, November. 

Odette: Do you think that increased when parents were making decisions to homeschool, or when some schools were offering blended delivery options?  

Jodi: Yeah, I mean, I think one of my own personal mandates that we don’t write into our mandate and goals for the program, but watching the rise of social media and kids attention to screen and, and not just attention to screen, but the power that social media programs, they leverage our desire for social connection by drawing us in, and then they make us pay for it through the advertising, through the suggestions, through the notifications and through the almost addictive cycle that many social media programs create in many h ans and especially often in preteens and teenagers. And so one of my personal mandates for these programs is to keep kids, seeing each other, keep kids, allowing kids to have those peer relationships in person.  , so that those peer relationships are not completely mediated through their phones or through their social media programs, which have such ulterior motives other than just allowing kids to connect. 

And, and so when they were cut off from school and cut off from seeing friends, I think there was a lot of activity through social media platforms. 

And I think that was probably necessary because they needed to maintain those connections. And I also see that as unfortunate, the way those social media platforms are set up because they, they are not holding the best interests of the youth and teens in mind, they’re, they’re selling to advertisers, they have a business plan, and yet they’re playing off of that deep need that these teens are have,  for social connection. And, and so that was what really drove me to try and find a way to safely meet in person. And then we have the flip side of that, which is when you bring kids and children and teens together, it is almost impossible to keep them two meters apart. And you feel like a police, you know,  brutal police person, or, you know, like, like it’s military or something where like regimenting these distances and not letting them touch each other and not letting them get too close. 

And, and that was, that was the final reason why we stopped the programs,  , when COVID finally arrived on Cortez,  or at least visibly and, and publicly,  we just realized that we could not mandate any, anything the level of our program to kids to, to probably stay that far apart, even though we were outside.  and we were, you know, in the fresh air,  I realized that that would totally change the nature of the programs because one of the things we do is we provide a nice supervised space where the kids can relax and be themselves, and it’s not as structured as school. And they’ve almost a lot of them have been at school all day and they need a little bit of space to just be relaxed, their bodies, and kind of be more physical and be moving in different ways that allow them to release some of that tension. 

And yet, so much of that brings them into contact with each other, even if it’s safe, you know, it’s not, it’s not like they’re hurting each other, they’re just touching each other. And, and that became, that was when I made my final decision just recently last week to stop the programs, because I did not feel the programs would offer the same thing to these kids with us mandating, they stay more than two meters apart from each other the whole time and possibly have to wear masks. And we were also going to have to control how they came to the programs and how they left, but they come from school, a lot of them, and there was like the level of control we had over. It just wasn’t wasn’t enough. 

Jodi: I was so thrilled when Bill Dougan who runs the Gorge Harbor Marina said that he’d be willing to facilitate a twosie hangout. This was before the province-wide public health orders came down and that he had a gazebo, we could do it outside. And,  , and it still took us a few weeks to get that going. And then the day that it was scheduled, a public health officer visited Cortez. And the day before it was scheduled was the day that the province wide restrictions went out, that would have been like November 23rd. 

And, and so we had 11 teens show up that day. They had a ball, they just loved it. I had two emails from different parents saying how much their kids loved it, and hadn’t even realized how much the kids needed that. And the facilitators thought it went great. And the facilitators informed me that, like, there was no physical distancing going on. It just wasn’t really possible.  , and like they come off the bus, you know, in arms holding hands, whatever they do. And so, so that was after we had a week to kind of decide if we were going to be able to do it again. And that’s where the situation on Cortez unfolded that there were active cases. And the health officer,  who had talked to Bill originally said, you cannot have Hangouts.  , you could have, we could have nature hikes or walks where everybody was mandated to be two meters apart. 

But again, in this climate to me, as I told you, before it defeats sort of the intention we have of letting the youth be a bit more free and autonomous in their actions and, and a very, you know, an alert community that is trying to now stop spread, it just, I knew that they couldn’t really continue and, despite that, but it was heartbreaking for me because I had felt so strongly the need and heard it articulated and had a lot of things in my mind. So that was a very, very hard call to make 

Odette: As a mother, keeping my eyes on provincial health authority updates, all the time. There’s always going to be that impulse to give my child what they need most, right now. My teen attended only one Teen Szene since the pandemic started, and she said “I forgot, how much I miss everyone.”

Jodi: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And I think, I wonder if the world and the media and all these adults talking in different places, other than parents of teens, if they really understand when you’re a teenager, it’s your time to move out into the world. It’s, you know, it’s your time to launch yourself and to explore. And for teenagers, the door has just kind of been slammed shut for the last year. And, and I don’t have teenagers, so I’m kind of sitting there empathizing or sympathizing from far off, but I, I don’t know what the answers are. We’re definitely going to try and see it as soon as we can safely restart the teen scene at the Gorge, we will, it’s just such a great spot. Like it was just so ideal in so many ways. 

 But I’m not sure what the situation is going to do as we go into the dark winter months and flu season. And, and, and now that we have active cases on Cortez. So, I’m monitoring the situation really closely and I’m keeping in touch with the coordinators because they were actually both willing to keep trying to do something, although in the end, I think both coordinators were relieved and kind of grateful when I said that we were closing it down. Cause I think they also held in their minds. They weren’t quite sure of the risk. They were now connected to the whole school because the kids that were coming from school. And, and so I, they were both grateful in the end that it did pause, but they, but they did not ask for it to pause either. They were actually willing to, to try and keep it going, which, which says a lot for their hearts also to, to provide something for the teens.”

This program was funded by a grant from the Community Radio Fund of Canada and the Government of Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative

One thought on “How COVID impacted Teen afterschool programming on Cortes Island”

Comments are closed.