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Academic Coaches support students through COVID-19

Patrick Curran, IRC in NY’s Youth Program Supervisor, reflects below on the quick work of the IRC’s Academic Coach program to adapt to COVID-19 in New York City.

Earlier this year, the IRC in New York welcomed eight master of social work interns to take on the role of Academic Coach to support newly arrived refugee and immigrant families in their adjustment to the school system. Little did any of us know how critical their work would become with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On a typical day, Academic Coaches (known in the office as ACs) would start their day at the IRC office on 38th Street in Manhattan, settling in with the rest of the team, grabbing a cup of coffee and then hitting the phones to contact families and their children’s schools in order to coordinate services, including learning more about their academic performance and social and emotional well-being. Most afternoons, ACs would grab their metro cards and ride the subway (usually more than an hour’s trip away) to meet with families at their homes or facilitate a meeting with school officials. In-person services at client homes and schools has always been a trademark of the Academic Coaching program. It is the catalyst for meaningful relationships to develop and literally fulfills the old social work axiom of “meeting clients where they are.” For the newcomer families we work with, it also allows for a sense of pride as they get the opportunity to host a guest in their new home and share more about their own cultural traditions. 

Pat celebrated the AC's hard work in the 2019/20 school year on Zoom. Thank you ACs! You'll be missed.

Photo: Patrick Curran/IRC.

It is no exaggeration to say, then, that the idea of providing remote-only services in this program was completely novel to the team. In spite of this, the ACs leaned willingly into the uncertainty of this new reality, knowing full well that their role in supporting families had become all the more critical. When New York City announced that all schools would rapidly transition to remote learning, the team recognized that this would be easier said than done. So many of the families we work with did not have an internet connection at home, much less a computer or tablet that their children could work on. On top of that, some of the families we work with are still developing their English skills and are unfamiliar with using the apps and websites New York City schools selected for remote learning. Furthermore, families found themselves in precarious financial situations as they faced layoffs and furloughs, questioning how they would even put food on the table.

The ACs worked to re-connect families to all the services they needed, all the while working from home. When the New York City Department of Education announced it would deliver 300,000 iPads to students in need, Academic Coaches were some of the first to submit requests in collaboration with families. When internet service providers offered two months of free internet, Academic Coaches hopped on the phone with families and patiently waited for operators and interpreters to be available. And when the rest of the amazing IRC team identified emergency financial and food resources, Academic Coaches explained these to families and ensured that they received what they needed. This holistic crisis response is the epitome of social work in action. We could not have accomplished this without the AC team.

The Academic Coaches wrapped up their work on May 15, conducting final phone calls and video chats with families to thank them for entrusting IRC with supporting them. In our final group meeting, many mentioned their gratitude to the IRC for the excellent learning experience, especially the chance to learn how to adapt services to meet this new and challenging moment.

To support Pat and the Academic Coaches' great work with the IRC's youth program, click here.