Girls at several middle and high schools in Washington, D.C., in wards 5, 7 and 8 were already handling more challenges in their lives than many teens face.
They live in neighborhoods with high crime, high unemployment and low incomes.
Some have responsibilities at home caring for younger siblings, filling in for parents who are working. Some are teen parents themselves.
When schools closed a week ago and many businesses followed suit, the challenges increased. High school girls began to lose their jobs, said Siobhan Davenport, executive director of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington. The organization provides youth development programming for girls in eight D.C. and 12 Montgomery County, Md., schools.
On Monday, at least two girls in the program lost their part-time jobs at Burger King and Subway as those businesses closed, she said. Other girls scrambled to understand what was happening. They worried that their families wouldn’t have enough money for food, Davenport said.
Eight program leaders at Crittenton Services run the weekly after-school programs that provide girls with support in overcoming obstacles, making positive choices and reaching their goals, according to the organization.
When leaders checked in with the girls via phone and text, there were plenty of questions, Davenport said. How does coronavirus spread, exactly? Can you get it from Chinese food? (The answer is no.) One girl left her laptop computer at school. How would she get it?
Crittenton focused on providing accurate information about the virus on its website and through program staff.
Initially program leaders rushed to address problems such as whether the girls had the supplies they need for an extended period without school. Another problem they saw was that schools might not even have updated contact information on all their students because of address and phone number changes, Davenport said.
“Girls were concerned about food scarcity,” she said. Almost immediately, program staff delivered gas cards and food to 12 families, she said.
Program leaders are checking in with the students using text messages and various apps. They’re looking at using multiple channels of communication, Davenport said. They’re emphasizing self-care and maintaining a consistent schedule, even as they worry about girls in difficult home situations.
“For some of our girls, their home environment is not a safe place,” Davenport said, referring to emotionally abusive relationships.
Program leaders may be the only — or one of the few — trusted adult in the lives of some of the girls, she said. The leaders also are concerned that girls practice social distancing and avoid getting together with friends in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Girls don’t feel safe at school, home
A survey of 71 girls and additional alumnae of the program, published in 2018 as the “Declare Equity for Girls” report, presented girls’ view of conditions in their schools and community.
Girls said they were frequently “put down,” as fellow students and adults make comments about their bodies and clothes. These comments reinforced negative stereotypes experienced by black girls, the report said. Girls described their schools as places of “drama” involving bullying and fighting.
They said their school environment was not conducive to learning and that their home and family environment added to the challenge. They said they don’t feel safe and respected in their school or neighborhood.
Program leaders at Crittenton plan to hold their weekly group meetings using various online apps, Davenport said. It’s important to maintain these key connections, she said. As the coronavirus pandemic changes daily life for everyone, the organization is doing its best to respond.
“We’re all trying to figure this out. We’re building the airplane as we’re flying it,” she said.
This story has been updated.