When the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester (BGCD) convened a safety advisory task force last month to begin preparations for re-opening, Mary Kinsella, vice president of education at the organization, knew they had their work cut out for them.
The task force — comprised of BGCD staff, parents, medical professionals, consultants, teachers, nurses, and police officers — solicited feedback from a wide range of experts and residents through virtual “family town halls” and surveys.
“We wanted to make sure we had input from the community,” explained Kinsella. “We listened to a lot of different voices and I think the steps we’ve taken go above and beyond the minimum requirements.”
This week, Dot kids will see the results of the weeks of preparation. On Monday, BGCD will reopen with one of the most thorough and comprehensive pandemic-era strategies to be implemented by any organization in the city.
“It was a lot of work. But, of course it will be worth it,” said Kinsella as she listed the numerous changes to life at the Boys and Girls Clubs, explaining how the atmosphere at the club will be a bit different this summer.
The majority of programming will be outside, with 25 percent, limited indoor capacity — meaning kids will spend less time in classrooms and more in bigger spaces like the gym and pool.
Kinsella said the HVAC system in the building has also been overhauled to allow for more outside air flow.
The club’s plan for social distancing will be based on the “Denmark model,” taking cues from the Scandinavian country that has seen relative success in safely reopening schools in the wake of COVID-19.
Under this approach, club-goers will be in groups of no more than twelve— ten kids and two staff members— at all times. In academic settings, students will remain in their own “individual learning pods” and work independently with their own materials. The cost of providing each student his or her own supplies was “exorbitant,” admitted Kinsella.
Children and staff will be screened for symptoms upon arrival each day, after which they will switch their “at home” masks for club ones before proceeding to participate in activities. After that, sanitizing and hand-washing will be encouraged regularly throughout the day.
Burgeoning relationships between the club and neighborhood health centers will also play a role going forward. DotHouse Health will perform onsite testing in July, and a new collaboration with Uphams Corner Health Center means that any club member, parent, or employee who fears they are falling ill can get tested within 24 hours.
BGCD will also provide masks and gloves to those who need them: “We have enough PPE to last us six months,” said Kinsella.
Curriculum-wise, club staff plans to focus on “socio-emotional wellness” for its younger age groups in particular, placing an emphasis on “supporting happiness.” Other lessons will be aimed at battling learning loss, promoting health and fitness, and teaching about social justice.
A pediatric health consultant will remain in an advisory role at the club for the rest of the year as leadership anticipates an ongoing need to adapt to what is a “fluid situation.” A certified therapist will also lead a daily session with staff to focus on mental health, create a safe space, and incorporate mindfulness and meditation into everyday programming.
BGCD has hired 110 employees for the summer in efforts to maintain its tradition of providing summer jobs to neighborhood young adults. Among those on staff will be a small cadre of social justice-oriented educators, who will “create curriculum for younger kids as well as signage and messaging. We wanted to make sure their voices are heard,” said Kinsella, who pointed to the club’s tremendous diversity.
In light of recent high-profile cases of police brutality, Kinsella said the club decided to maintain its police officer-involved programming, meant to ensure that every kid’s first interaction with law enforcement is a positive one.
BGCD’s virtual programming, an initiative that has been successful since the organization pivoted to digital during the pandemic, will continue. The club’s regular weekend grocery distribution program and “grab-and-go” meals will also proceed indefinitely. And despite “devastating” financial losses wrought by the pandemic and cancellation of fundraisers, the club has not raised its rates.
One of the toughest changes, noted Kinsella, will be the fact that no visitors will be allowed into the clubhouse— not even parents.
“It feels like everything we do is the opposite,” she said. “Usually we’re all about sticking together and depending on each other and hugging each other and hanging out, and now everyone will be on their own. But at the same time, I know we’ve trained and prepared as much as possible. We’re going to do the best we can. I feel very confident in our reopening plan.”
Based on feedback she has received so far, the kids are excited to be coming back and the parents are grateful to the club for being there for them. The first morning of early education care on Tuesday went smoother than expected, said Kinsella, who added she’s also looking forward to the club being filled with life once again.
“The buildings felt so cold and empty the last few months. I miss the little things: the kids’ smiles, their laughter, little conversations with parents, goofing off with staff members, and just the overall energy...I missed being able to tap into children for that energy.”
To learn more about programming and membership at Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester, visit bgcdorchester.org.