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Volunteering with children remains virtual due to safety concerns, vaccine ineligibility

Students in Durham public schools have the opportunity to learn about health through the Learning Together Program.
Students in Durham public schools have the opportunity to learn about health through the Learning Together Program.

COVID-19 has presented significant challenges for organizations volunteering with minors in the Durham community.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, only 59% of North Carolinians ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. However, children under 12 are still ineligible for vaccination. 

Due to safety concerns, Duke is not permitting in-person programs involving minors at this point in the semester, according to Katy Boyd, senior human resources representative and youth protection coordinator at Duke.

Boyd wrote that only online programs are subject to approval at this time. Such programs must be approved by the youth programs oversight process, which analyzes the program’s “relationship to Duke’s educational and academic mission” and upholds the University’s Standards of Best Practice for programs involving minors.

Despite these administrative obstacles, many student organizations are adapting to an indefinitely virtual format. 

Junior Andrew Liu is an executive member of Duke Health and STEM Connect, a group of students who work with students from Durham Public Schools to encourage STEM education and leadership.

Though the group was limited to just working with club members in fall 2020, the club used their meeting times to create STEM-based educational materials for DPS teachers. Since spring 2021, DHSC has created new ways of interacting with students, including holding virtual workshops and seminars centering around global health. 

Though the group has smoothly navigated virtual programming, they hope to return to DPS as soon as the school system allows. When in-person volunteering is approved, volunteers will wear masks, practice social distancing in the classrooms and prioritize outdoor activities, he added. 

“We’ll continue to work with the schools to best support them in changing times,” Liu wrote. “We’re hoping that as the pandemic situation begins to stabilize and improve, we’ll be able to work with our DPS students in-person soon!”

Females and Allies Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science (FEMMES+), is another Duke student group that organizes educational outreach programs in DPS. In a typical year, the group holds after school programs at local elementary, middle or high schools, Saturday programs and a day-long “hackathon” on Duke’s campus.

COVID-19 drastically altered FEMMES+ programming, as they are no longer allowed to host in-person events on Duke’s campus. Many of their school-age participants are under 12 and ineligible for the COVID vaccine. 

Angela Guan, a senior and FEMMES+ co-program director, said that going virtual has been “new territory” for the group. 

At first, the group struggled to get kids logged on to Zoom after a full day of virtual school. As they continue their programming online, Guan said they hope to ship physical materials to their participants to provide more of a “hands-on” experience, similar to the experiments or modeling activities they would do in a typical year.

Though the year has looked different, Guan said that the group has still been able to build mentorship relationships with students over Zoom that will hopefully continue in-person in the near future.

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