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DALLAS, Texas (KXAN) — Studies from the Centers for Disease Control show how the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected communities of color, showing long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put these groups at greater risk. Education can be a contributing factor – which is why some non-profit organizations like Big Thought in Dallas, Texas, are working to close that gap.

It’s been around for more than 30 years and today serves 150,000 children from kindergarten through 12th grade, many from low-income families or marginalized communities.

As president and CEO, Byron Sanders says it’s his mission to continue Big Thought’s efforts aimed at empowering youth. But when the pandemic hit back in March, Sanders questioned his ability to continue that work.

“I think about that date — March 13. It’s seared in my brain — when we went to shelter in place,” Sanders said. “Immediately, we had to make sure we could stabilize our own ship, our team had what they needed to be able to work remotely.”

Making changes — and quickly

Before the pandemic, Big Thought’s efforts were in-person and interactive, including after-school and summer programs on campuses and other places like the Texas State Fair. They had never halted operations, but in a matter of days, Byron and his team had to completely re-think how they would move forward.

A Big Thought volunteer helps children with an activity (Courtesy Big Thought)
A Big Thought volunteer helps children with an activity before the pandemic changed how programs worked (Courtesy Big Thought)

“We were, quite frankly, redesigning ourselves as we went through this. It’s almost an unrecognizable organization,” Sanders said.

As shelter-in-place orders went into effect across the state, Big Thought sent out what it called a “summer needs survey.” It was a short questionnaire asking for families’ concerns. More than 1,100 responded, noting that safety was their top priority, followed by academic progress and financial stress.

Sixty-five percent of respondents also noted they were essential and healthcare workers who had to be on the front lines, so Big Thought wanted to help those families first by obtaining an emergency license to open a child care facility in Dallas’ medical district.

Bridging the digital divide

Big Thought then turned to its student programs.

“The second thing [families] were concerned about was, they knew they were going to be on deck for a lot of digital and remote learning — those who had devices and connectivity and those who didn’t — and we recognized we’re gonna have to find digital solutions,” Sanders said. “We’re also gonna have to find socially-distanced solutions, and we’re gonna have to have hybrid.”

Access to technology was already a problem for many of the students and only made worse by the pandemic.

“The digital divide has reared its head as one of those things that separates communities from the haves and the have nots and communities of color largely from concentrated poverty areas are the ones who are most at risk, who are not able to be connected,” Sanders said.

Big Thought leaned on the support of 700 other organizations and corporate sponsors. A $200,000 donation from Boeing and a fund called Neighborhood Resource Initiative made it possible to purchase computers and other technology for families.

Children like eight-year-old Yohan Morgan were thrilled to be able to connect, learn and visit places across the globe he’d never seen in person.

Yohan Morgan, Claudia Morgan and Zaya Morgan (Courtesy Morgan Family)
Yohan Morgan, Claudia Morgan and Zaya Morgan (Courtesy Morgan Family)

“I got to learn about financial literary, cybersecurity, doing arts and crafts, going to the Grand Canyon. It was very fun,” Yohan Morgan said. “I’ve never visited the Grand Canyon before online, so it was pretty amazing.”

Big Thought also realized that children would need a break from their screens and would need more social and emotional learning so it collaborated with another partner, Dallas City of Learning, to assemble creative learning kits.

“It was definitely engaging and also sparked creativity,” says Yohan’s mom, Claudia Morgan.

Families like the Morgans received a kit every two weeks which included STEM activities and materials to help students stay engaged and stimulated.

“We’re an organization where we’re all about creative learning and we had to embrace our own creativity and meet the needs of families,” Sanders said.

The pandemic has brought more than just operational challenges for Big Thought. In addition to lower enrollment, donations can be dependent on the economy, which means money could be an even bigger concern if the pandemic persists. There’s also the question of measuring the success of what they’re doing now. Big Thought is still gathering year to year, 2019-2020 data which they do each year in preparation for their October reports. That information will tell them what adjustments are needed to continue serving their community.

Although enrollment is down in its programs, Big Thought says its job is to continue reaching families, especially those in marginalized communities.

“One of the stories they’re going to tell in reflecting on this time, as we go back and reflect on what happened during coronavirus, will be these stories of inspiration from people who knew that there were families out there that desperately needed us to be there for them and we created brand new models of being able to do that for them,” Sanders said.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.