Poll: How cities are engaging youth through the COVID-19 pandemic

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(Source AP Photo)

As the pandemic continues to upend daily life, public officials are devoting much of their attention to stopping the spread of COVID-19 and reopening the economy. But in America’s cities, mayors are also addressing more specific needs of their youngest residents. This is according to latest weekly survey of mayors from Bloomberg Philanthropies and The U.S. Conference of Mayors, which focused on youth issues and COVID-19.

Helping youth receive the supports they need

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing challenges younger residents face and has laid bare new ones. Among the mayors participating in our survey, 82 percent told us food security among youth was a problem that their city government was addressing. This has emerged as a concern across the country as one of the traditional solutions — providing free meals to students while they are at school — is no longer viable since schools have closed.

Digital inequity is also a concern that 58 percent of mayors are working to solve. The digital divide in access to broadband and computers became increasingly urgent when school moved online and many low-income students lacked the technology to participate. Cities have responded in interesting ways, such as in Albuquerque where they created “WiFi on Wheels” to provide digital connectivity at schools and libraries or in Boston where they are connecting students with free Chromebooks.

The other youth-focused concerns mayors said they are focused on include domestic violence (46 percent), stable housing (44 percent), and health-care access (26 percent). Mayors also said they are concerned about mental health and resilience among younger residents — a topic that could become increasingly important in the coming months and years.

Engaging youth through volunteer efforts

About half of the mayors surveyed (48 percent) reported that youth-led or youth-focused organizations have been volunteering to help community efforts during the pandemic. Several cities are coordinating efforts with the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, youth sports leagues, and local nonprofits. Often, these organizations provide services (e.g., childcare for essential workers, food distribution) for residents or youth specifically, particularly as our patchwork social safety net has faced strains.

In a few cities, students are packing or delivering meals for senior citizens or running errands for homebound residents. Some students have sewed or distributed masks to vulnerable populations. In other cities, younger residents are using creative approaches to influence their peers’ behavior and encourage social distancing through songs or peer-to-peer messaging. Mayors also want to hear from youth directly and a few have held youth-focused townhalls or have youth advisors they engage.

Uncertainty around summer programs, but a desire to adapt in a safe way

Summer brings not only respite from classrooms, but also new opportunities for camps, sports leagues, and jobs and internships — often organized through city government. But many mayors said they are still trying to determine how to safely continue summer programming amid the ongoing public health crises.

One-third of the responding mayors said they had not yet decided what to do about summer youth programming. One-quarter of mayors said they were moving to virtual programming or a mix of in-person and digital options. Another quarter of cities participating in our survey said they were cancelling all summer youth programming. Few (12 percent) were moving forward as originally planned.

While most cities responding to the survey noted they traditionally offer youth opportunities in the summer (programming or internships), 52 percent said they were struggling to ensure the safety of participants and making sure social distancing is possible. Another 36 percent noted that planning under uncertainty was making it difficult to decide how to handle summer youth programs.

While school closures are often assumed to be the most significant pandemic-related disruption for youth, mayors are responding to a broad array of other concerns related to young people. Providing those supports has required cities to engage outside-of-the-box thinking, partner with the community and private sector, and engage deeply with younger residents and their advocates. As we move into various phases of the pandemic, that same spirit to guide political, civic, and private sector leaders

The survey was fielded May 21-26, with responses from 50 cities.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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