Community engagement and partnership efforts at Towson University have drastically shifted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This hasn’t stopped faculty, staff, and students from adapting to the times and finding new ways to collaborate.

Supporting people with autism and their families

In partnership with the Autism Society of Baltimore-Chesapeake, Kay Holman is facilitating virtual support groups for families that include topics such as behavior, idea sharing, and well-being and coping support.

Kay Holman, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Special Education, and director of the Teacher as Leader in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) graduate program, partners with Baltimore County Public Schools and the Autism Society of Baltimore-Chesapeake each year to host the Honestly Autism Day conference, a day devoted to understanding autism, bringing together family members, professionals, and individuals with autism to listen, ask questions, and learn from each other. This year’s conference was scheduled to take place on March 28, 2020, and is currently being rescheduled.

In the meantime, Holman connected with the president of Autism Society of Baltimore-Chesapeake (ASBC), Debbie Page, to brainstorm ways they could reach out to families who were suddenly isolated and without the services that their children need, which Holman points out “can cause additional challenges and stress for the family.” ASBC has previously offered in-person monthly support groups, but to meet these new needs have launched daily, virtual support groups for families, called “Together Apart.” The support groups are facilitated by ASBC staff and Towson University ASD faculty, and currently include topics such as behavior, idea sharing, connection calls for teens with ASD, and well-being and coping support. They are also working on developing virtual groups for families at home with children who require significant needs, families with young children, and caregivers of young adults.

While the initial work began between ASD faculty and ASBC staff, Holman is inviting students from her Partnering with Families of Students with Disabilities class to listen in on the sessions she facilitates to begin to integrate them into the partnership. If, due to social distancing and self-quarantining, this need is extended for a long period of time, they will explore ways for ASD graduate students to directly support these efforts. Holman shared that the response has been overwhelmingly positive and “families are appreciating the opportunity to connect with other people and receive support that has been cut off to them.”

Transforming spoken word workshop into online course

TU undergrad students are transforming their in-person spoken word workshop for Baltimore City middle-school students into an online course.

Grantwriting in Valued Environments Project (G.I.V.E.) students Amuche Nwafor, a senior electronic media and film major, and Emani Harris, a junior English and secondary education major, are transforming their in-person spoken word workshop for Baltimore City middle-school students into a Padlet online course.

Before COVID-19, the two students led a six week in-person continuous workshop under the supervision of Zosha Stuckey, PhD, associate professor in the Department of English, at the SAFE Center at the Safe Alternative Foundation for Education, an after school program in the Franklin Square neighborhood of West Baltimore. The online adaptation will engage middle-school students to write and perform a spoken word piece exploring their relationship to Baltimore, their community, and their family while they are at home this semester. The middle-school students will watch and study works by local and national artists, then workshop an original piece as a way to advocate for themselves, their families and communities and to inspire future generations.

Shortly before the effects of COVID-19 started to have a significant effect on Maryland students, Uche Anyanwu, a G.I.V.E intern and communications studies major, began working on a grant proposal for Safe Alternative Foundation for Education. Originally, SAFE intended to use the funds for after-school programming that occurs face-to-face.

But to continue serving SAFE’s under-served students, the proposal needed to be adapted. While the expectation may be that everyone has access to technology to work from home, the reality is that many students lack these resources. The proposal was adapted to include funding for laptops for each student to use at home during the summer, as well as online learning programs that will supplement the lessons they’ve received from their teachers. The world has changed and we must adapt our programs to support under-served students—no matter what.

Making curriculum more accessible for Baltimore City Community Schools students

Before COVID-19, 50 Towson University students were actively working within six different community schools. The program is now focused on making student curriculum more accessible.

Towson University education students are playing a role in setting up live or prerecorded sessions for families and kids at Baltimore City Community Schools. In response to COVID-19 protocols, Baltimore City Public Schools produced a packet of work with which students need guidance. TU students are breaking down ideas and activities in the packet into simpler parts so that they are more accessible by the students.

Towson University students are also tutoring high school students in real time, reading to elementary school students online, and producing videos about college life at Towson University.

Before COVID-19, 50 Towson University students were actively working within six different community schools under the supervision of Jessica Shiller, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Instructional Leadership and Professional Development, in a service learning course. Service learning projects included health fairs, community gardens, food pantry expansion and maintenance, establishing student government associations as. This full-year undergraduate service learning course in Baltimore City Community Schools is now focused on making student curriculum more accessible.

COVID-19 is ushering a new era for public education, and because schools have had to close and move instruction online, inequity issues that were present before this pandemic have only been exacerbated. There will be tremendous learning loss for all students, but especially in Baltimore City Public School. Not only do students have limited access to online learning, but online learning is not the best way to teach our most vulnerable students. Best practices for these students include culturally responsive curricula, as well as connection and relationships to do their best academically. TU students are at the ready to try and provide what we can to help young people in Baltimore, but ultimately, this will take a very long time and prolonged commitment to help Baltimore City students to get back what will be lost this school year. 

Empowering refugee students through the arts

TU graduate students gather with students from Patterson High School in front of a collaborative art exhibit in fall 2019.

The YAAAS! Youth Allies and Artists Taking Action in Society community engagement project, where graduate students in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts Infusion (MAIAI) use collaborative art making practices to work alongside refugee youth at Patterson High School in Baltimore City, was meant to branch into a spring initiative specifically for high school immigrant and refugee girls who, too often, are excluded from evening and weekend enrichment programs due to work and family obligations.

Unfortunately, with school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the new spring program couldn’t happen.

However, Kate Collins, PhD, MAIAI program director, and her graduate students are getting creative, hoping to stay in contact with and to support their young community partners. It’s still early and they are working through the details, but they anticipate providing homework help since all public school students just received a packet of school work and are a bit overwhelmed without the same after school tutoring they usually receive through the Refugee Youth Project.

Collins and her students are also piloting a small arts challenge as a way to stay connected and provide meaningful activities to occupy their minds and hands during this stressful time. Collins will mail packets of art supplies to a handful of previous participants and organizing weekend art challenges (using YouTube tutorials) that can be shared with Collins and her grad students via Instagram. They may even experiment with the grad students incorporating the youth art into their own art making so it becomes a collaborative project. It will be a big experiment, but they are hopeful that it will take off and become a fun and meaningful exchange. If it catches on, they’ll send out more art supply packets and see where it takes them.

We know many groups and individuals across campus are adjusting their partnerships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The BTU leadership team would love to hear your ideas and innovations to continue community engagement efforts and are also here to support you if you need it. Feel free to reach out to or tune in to one of our upcoming online workshops.