By New Mexico Lt. Governor, Howie Morales & May Sagbakken, Executive Director, The New Mexico Out-of-School Time Network (NMOST) 

June 28, 2022

Afterschool and summer learning programs are vital supports to communities across New Mexico, and we must ensure that the recent influx of financial help for them continues. Trusted community-based organizations such local Boys & Girls Clubs work with students, families, and schools to deliver positive settings, relationships, and experiences that are often foundational building blocks for young people’s healthy development. Recognizing the serious impacts the pandemic has had on young people’s health and well-being, expanding access to afterschool and summer learning for kids is more important than ever. 

We know that the COVID pandemic took a steep toll on many children, from increased anxiety and social isolation, to coping with grief and loss. The pandemic has especially hit communities who were already vulnerable before the pandemic, such as youth with disabilities, racial minorities, and children from low-income families. 

Much of the concern around the pandemic has centered, understandably, on learning loss. But robust academic research shows that play is also an essential part of child development, aiding in empathy, healthy relationships, survival skills and self-regulation. These noncognitive factors encompass a variety of skills, behaviors and attitudes that arm children with the social and emotional competencies to perform well in school, and function in society. That’s where out-of-school-time programs come in.

Thanks to President Biden and the Congress, new funding for summer enrichment and afterschool programs for states was included in the $1.9 trillion federal COVID relief package last year. At Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s direction, the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) set aside $6 million of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds for mini-grants for partnerships between local school districts and community-based organizations to create, support and expand afterschool programs in underserved communities here. This influx of funds has provided a unique opportunity for youth and for out-of-school time providers. As of April 2022, 34 grants have been awarded, supporting more than 50 afterschool and summer program sites across the state of New Mexico.

Throughout the pandemic, ample research consistently found that afterschool and summer programs stepped up to meet the needs of young people, including help with their overall health and wellbeing.  While no one is suggesting that a few weeks of summer camp and afterschool is a cure-all, the science shows the kind of experiences afterschool and summer camp can provide — a safe, healthy space to explore, play and build confidence — can change children’s lives. During the pandemic, afterschool and summer programs adapted to circumstances and expanded services to meet the needs of children and families. Yet too many children and youth in New Mexico are being left out.

Even before COVID hit, a survey of New Mexico parents found that for every child in an afterschool program, three more would have participated if a program were available. A national fall of 2020 survey confirmed 75 percent of parents agreed that the experience of the pandemic made them appreciate teachers and afterschool providers more than ever before.

If New Mexico is to recover fully and ensure more positive, equitable outcomes broadly for its youth, we need to continue to invest in afterschool and summer programs. While pandemic-era relief programs play an essential role in providing these services to students at scale now, the conditional nature of these federal funding streams will require policy makers to identify additional revenues to compensate for the end of recovery programs. To achieve long-term sustainability, New Mexico’s leaders must lock in funding specifically for expanded learning initiatives through community-based providers, and distribute these funds in a way that ensures all children in New Mexico have access to quality afterschool and summer learning no matter where they live.

In 2019 we held the first Lt. Governor’s Conference on Afterschool in Albuquerque, bringing together providers from across the state, families and experts to compare notes on what’s working and main challenges. We’ll continue these discussions again later this year.

The pandemic experience reminded us that children are always learning, whether they are in the classroom or not.Programs outside the traditional school day help channel learning in constructive ways for kids, providing the opportunity for students to connect with their passions, and develop new skills for life. The true value of afterschool and summer education is that it offers an alternative to rigid assessments in favor of key student engagement, cultivating love of learning,  personal growth and self-expression. Student achievement and proficiency follow strong student engagement.