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As vaccine-laden trucks roll across the United States, it is impossible to miss the vital role that scientific research has played in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tiny vials of vaccine headed toward a bicep near each of us will likely save hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives in the United States and across the globe.

As an educator, a lesson stands out for me: the vital role that the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math), play in our lives, now and in the future. It’s why afterschool programs in North Carolina and elsewhere have put so much focus on the STEM fields in recent years. We recognize the importance of STEM lessons and experiences in sparking students’ interest in a host of STEM-related careers. And we know, too, that afterschool programs are uniquely suited to the kinds of sleeves-rolled-up activities that are so vital to STEM education.

That’s why, pre-pandemic, many afterschool students were busy every afternoon building robots, learning computer coding, investigating soil conditions for community gardens they were planting, and more. Since COVID-19 struck, many afterschool programs have taken on additional challenges, such as delivering meals to families, supporting distance learning and more to help students adapt to school systems’ new schedules and methods. Through it all, programs have continued to find ways to deliver STEM curriculum, often providing take-home kits for students to use on their own or with their parents, or developing lesson plans that involve everyday materials found around the home.

A new survey offers insights into STEM instruction in afterschool programs. In the recently released America After 3PM survey, the Afterschool Alliance found that the overwhelming majority of parents reported that their child’s program offered STEM learning opportunities. Not coincidentally, fully 96% percent of North Carolina parents were satisfied with their child’s program.

Unfortunately, that same survey found that nationally, for every child in an afterschool program, the parents of three more were unable to find a program. Here in North Carolina, it’s about the same: for every child in an afterschool program in North Carolina, three more are still looking for a program.

In that same survey, respondents also recognized the role that afterschool programs play in supporting the economy. The great majority of parents with children in an afterschool program – 84% percent in North Carolina – agreed that afterschool programs help them keep their job or work more hours. And 82% percent of parents overall – with or without children in afterschool – agreed that afterschool programs provide working parents peace of mind. As the pandemic’s grip on our economy loosens, that aspect of afterschool will be all the more crucial, since it will allow parents to work in the afternoons, freed from worries about what their children, unsupervised, might be up to.

Finally, an overwhelming majority of respondents – 100% percent – recognize that afterschool programs provide a safe environment for children in the afternoons, echoing years of research that underscores the value parents place on making sure their children are under the watchful eyes of caring adults in the afternoons.

In short, the data show that parents both recognize and value the role afterschool plays in keeping children safe, inspiring them to learn about STEM and other topics, and helping parents, particularly working parents have peace of mind about their children’s afternoon hours.

Doubtless that’s the reason North Carolinians recognize the need for the public funding that would make it possible to address the critical shortage of afterschool programming. 89% percent of survey respondents from the state said they supported public funding for programs that provide afterschool opportunities.

Not all our children are headed for careers in the STEM fields, of course. But many are, and all of them will need at least a baseline understanding of science, technology, engineering, and math. That’s among the many reasons we need to make sure families have readier access to afterschool programs in the weeks, months and years to come.

Emily Neff is the Director of Youth Development for W.A.M.Y. Community Action, Inc. She serves as North Carolina’s current Afterschool Ambassador for the Afterschool Alliance.

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