Community service has been a cornerstone in education for years. It’s something students do as part of their academic and social journey through school and graduation. In Maryland, where Lori Batts is Supervisor of School Counseling for Wicomico County Public Schools, it has been a state-mandated 75-hour requirement, and it has been that way for 30 years. 

Service used to be planned, scheduled, tracked, enjoyed, and completed in much the same way it always had been, but COVID changed everything. “COVID unraveled the whole world as we knew it. In that unraveling, we found some things; we found connections and family, and new ways to communicate. Things were different. As we tried to return to normalcy, we discovered that was difficult, because we were all dealing with changes that created new challenges,” says Batts.

Finding a New Service Way

As school community service leaders were forced to modify their service programs, they sought new ways to keep students involved and connected. Lori Batts was contacted by some of these service organization leaders who were looking for ways to get students involved in their organizations despite the pandemic challenges.

A non-profit group called luv Michael is a Virtual Advocate, Volunteer from Anywhere program was a perfect fit. “We were happy to have new possibilities,” said Batts. “It was an avenue we may not have discovered if not for these new and trying times. We were able to match up our National Honor Society students to help adults with autism.”

Batts said, “luv Michael trains autistic adults to make and sell granola. Our National Honor Society Students joined in to help. Our students and adults with autism used Zoom calls to meet. Our students learned about autism and then taught what they learned with others. We had over 300 participants across our high schools, who logged almost 10,000 hours and raised about $8,000. This may not have happened in normal times.” Batts didn’t know, at the time, that the state would eventually pause the graduation requirement for two classes of seniors, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered much anyway. Their school has always maintained that service was important for students so Batts continued to search for additional alternatives.

Despite being hampered with remote education, Batts was able to continue her program because she never lost communications with her students. The district has been using x2VOL for five years, so everything is completely online —contacts, organization, hours tracking, service reflections, and more. “I don’t know what we would have done without x2VOL. We knew how to use it. There was no new learning curve, and everyone is comfortable with it,” said Batts.

Something else helped as well. People and places needing volunteers made it easier for students to connect virtually to complete training and fill out paperwork. They connected with students on the devices they had, such as phones, tablets and laptops. “Our local blood bank is a good example of an organization setting everything up online—from application to Zoom training, before students actually volunteered,” said Batts.

College Evaluation Changes

COVID changed many things, including how colleges looked at recruiting students. More students were opting out of universities and those who wanted to go to college were choosing to stay closer to home, or enroll online. College requirements changed, too.

“Before COVID most colleges were looking at a student’s GPA, and then at community service. Extracurricular activities and part time jobs were way down the list. For many students, online learning wasn’t a good fit, or not working. While colleges are still looking for some semblance of decent grades, student resiliency became a new recruitment checkbox. How students handled these troubling times said a lot about new college prospects,” said Batts.

Reflections

The state of Maryland requires reflection, or student comments about the kind of work they did and a few statements or internalizations about what it meant to them or those they helped. In Wicomico County Public Schools students must submit student service learning hours by answering six reflective questions. Even if their service is part of their usual classroom time in grades six through nine, reflections are mandatory. The same applies to when students move on to individual projects. 

Batts relayed that some projects are particularly rich. “A good reflection example happened with a volunteer project where students helped ‘holiday’ shop for needy kids in the district. Afterwards, student helpers reflected upon the holiday shopping wish lists. In the reflections students discovered the heart-felt meaning of giving. Many noted how grateful they were for the things they had,” said Batts.

Batts knows that these reflections are impacting her students' adult lives because she still stays in touch with many of them on social media. Former students who are adults and parents with kids of their own are passing on their commitment to services. “I'm very fortunate to have been given the privilege to watch my kids grow up and become really awesome adults, and then really awesome parents, who transfer that knowledge to their kids,” said Batts.

Curriculum-Based Community Service

Batts says that having a curriculum connection to community service is critical for the impact to truly sink in. It may just be a matter of tying things together, that are already happening, to make that happen. Here’s an example. “In one of our middle schools, students are doing a bee and garden project. There’s a science/curriculum part, and also a community service part. Not only are kids learning about bees pollinating crops, but they are also working in a garden that produces food for donation to the local food bank. The curriculum is providing a solution to a community need. The learning is so much deeper. It’s more than just a service project. I call it taking learning to action,” says Batts.

Learning from COVID

Taking anything positive from COVID times is difficult, but it seems that those who continued to find a way of keeping up their community service found a silver lining. School leaders, like Lori Batts, thought creatively, developed new partnerships, and discovered, along with their students, how to be resilient. “It pays to have a plan and the right management platform that is online,” says Michele Pitman, the CEO of intelliVOL, the company that developed x2VOL, which the Wicomico schools use. “We have all learned from the COVID experience. School community service programs are being redefined, and students, as well as the adults they become, will continue to reflect upon their activities—long afterward—that service is a wonderful part of life’s journey.”

Lori Batts, Supervisor of School Counseling for Wicomico County Public Schools

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