Tag Archives: COVID-19

Resuming School in a COVID World

By: Abby Duff

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen school closures across the country. The closures are taking their toll on student’s education, attentiveness, and mental health. Many schools have reopened their doors for the 2020-2021 school year, while others have chosen to go completely online, however that decision has been more difficult to make for schools like Sprout U School of the Arts in Trenton, NJ.

Sprout is an institution that values diversity and embracing culture, and the way they learn has been very hands-on, so the pandemic has been a major shock to their usual system. However, after getting a chance to speak with Danielle Winslow, known by her students as “Miss. Danielle,” the founder and principal of the school, it is clear that they are well-underway this school year, and are operating in the best, most normal way they possibly can.

At first, she said it was a challenge to develop an attainable AND affordable plan that could accommodate all of the students at school, as there is a wide age range stretching from preschool to high school. The majority of the students were unable to afford computers and headphones to support the new virtual learning environment, however generous community donors were able to provide them with the proper technology for classes. Because of this, students can learn online both at the school and remotely if need be. 

Another issue she encountered while developing the reopening plan was that many of the teachers resigned for fear of getting COVID. Because of this, she had to find an affordable, yet an engaging way for her students to continue their education both online and as normally as possible. Ms. Winslow was able to receive a grant from Pearson Online Academy, an online school program that provides both live and self-completed lessons. This program allows everyone to keep learning in person, as well as work from home on days off.

The students have class at the school every day except Wednesday. On Wednesdays, a cleaning service comes in and deep cleans the building to prevent the spread of COVID among the students and teachers at Sprout, and so far they (thankfully) have had no cases this year!

Even though the circumstances are different this year, Ms. Winslow has still found ways to allow her students to continue pursuing their artistic and creative passions. A few days week groups of students travel to dance lessons, and other days, an organization brings in instruments for the students to use and learn how to play at the school. They continue to perform plays and musicals, socially distanced of course, and the spirits are still high at Sprouts. I have been volunteering at Sprouts for the past few months, and have seen firsthand how optimistically and gracefully Miss Danielle and her students are handling this transition year! 

TASK Tackles Quarantine

By: Zion Lee

It seems life has taken a sharp turn with the global pandemic brought by COVID-19. Yet, as time has gone on, society has proven to be able to adapt as the unfortunate circumstances of COVID-19 have become a new normal. Even in the face of adversity, some things never change: like needing to eat. Fortunately, one place in Mercer County comes to mind when thinking about a reliable spot to eat, The Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK). Whilst COVID-19 has forced many businesses to close, Trenton Area Soup Kitchen has weathered the storm by adapting to these trying times to provide essentials to those in need.

As COVID-19 closed millions of businesses and changed the lives of billions of lives around the world, The Trenton Area Soup Kitchen has done its best to maintain a consistent meal schedule, serving thousands of patrons each week. While indoor dining was halted due to safety concerns, TASK has been able to provide almost 40,000 meals each month through packaged hot meals, prepared lunch and dinner, given out the front door of the facility. 

In addition to the hot meals, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen also has continued conducting social work help over the phone and has begun offering its beloved art and music programs again. In an interview with Jaime Parker of TASK, she shared that TASK’s focus is to “get everyone’s immediate needs met”. Now more than ever, it is the “perfect time for people to work towards their high school diploma” even despite the hardships at hand. And while “the digital divide is a big problem” for many patrons, TASK works to “close the gaps that exist” to this day. Individuals interested in receiving assistance from the case manager have been able to reach them over the phone and in the new tent patio at the TASK location to provide assistance to individuals who do not have cell phones with COVID-19 safety restrictions in mind. TASK has also been providing individuals with guidance on how to set up Zoom accounts for online interviews and even secure jobs with companies like “Amazon”. In addition, as the winter approaches, TASK is working with Homefront to create a warming tent for individuals who are looking for a place to stay when the months get colder.  

Even despite the threat of a global pandemic, it seems that the staff at TASK have been able to develop a plan that would ensure maintaining optimal service for their patrons. Anyone interested in receiving meals or social work help should head to TASK at 72 Escher St, Trenton, NJ 08609. The effective plans deployed by TASK such as providing packaged food, offering social services over the phone, and working to hold art classes have displayed the dedication and adaptability of the staff at TASK in the face of COVID-19.

 

Here is a link to TASK’S Official COVID Response

Homelessness-Jail Cycle: An Endless Fight for Incarcerated Individuals

By: Amanda Nunes and Dana Tocel

Homelessness and the criminal justice system profoundly connect. Many incarcerated individuals are homeless because of the lack of resources provided to them before and after their sentence. Additionally, many find themselves in jail due to arrests for low-level offenses. They disconnect from their support system, and many of them face job and housing discrimination, further establishing a homelessness-jail cycle.

Specifically, this cycle disproportionately affects minority groups, including Black, Indigenous, and Latinx, because they overrepresent groups of homelessness and those in jail. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice found that between the ages of 18 and 19, Black males were 12.7 times as likely and Hispanic males were 3.3 times as likely to be imprisoned compared to white males. Many incarcerated individuals’ convictions lead to them losing their jobs, housing, and personal relationships. Therefore, after their release and completion of their sentence, many do not have support.

In addition to having no resources to adapt to a new life outside of prison, they are also highly discriminated against when trying to acquire housing and employment, which leads to this cycle of incarceration and subsequent homelessness. Many formerly incarcerated individuals end up entering homeless shelters, overwhelmingly due to the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 does not stipulate that intentional discrimination occurs if a housing provider treats individuals differently because of their criminal record.

Much of the homelessness of incarcerated individuals is due in part to the multiple convictions that these individuals acquire. The Prison Policy Initiative found that those with multiple convictions are ten times more likely, and those incarcerated only once are seven times more likely to become homeless compared to the general public.

Homeless individuals are more likely to interact with police due to nonviolent offenses. The California Policy Lab found that unsheltered homeless individuals surveyed between 2015 and 2017 reported ten times the number of interactions with police in the past six months compared to reports by people living in shelters. Individuals experiencing homelessness were nine times more likely than individuals in shelters to have spent one night in jail.

Essentially, this cycle of jail leading to homelessness does not help individuals get access to housing and services, which they are in dire need of. Instead of providing incarcerated individuals with substance use treatment or mental health services which they might need, the “homelessness-jail cycle” persists.

To make matters worse, there are recent reports that state incarcerated individuals are suffering from COVID-19 prior to their release. As of October 9th, 33 NJDOC employees tested positive, eighteen incarcerated individuals tested positive, and none have passed away from the virus. According to The Trentonian, these facilities are failing to provide incarcerated individuals with the necessary amount of masks for their safety, they have been given only two masks and are told to reuse them.

During a recent interview with The Trentonian, Edward Peoples, an incarcerated individual, states, “Every time someone comes to my cell and drops a tray off, I wonder if the virus is on there…This is mental torture…We’re not being treated as we should.” Aside from Governor Murphy and officials disregarding the health of many incarcerated individuals who are displaying COVID-19 symptoms, most of the prison population does not qualify for release under Murphy’s edict. Not only do these ongoing issues affect them from potentially contracting COVID-19, but they also impede their chances of returning home.

In the past few months, with the impact of COVID-19, the way that police interact with individuals experiencing homelessness has changed. Those incarcerated individuals who unfortunately do not have a home to come back to are often in search of shelter in the form of housing but need to, first, get a job to support that endeavor. Undoubtedly, though, studies have found that formerly incarcerated individuals earn approximately 52% less than others after their return, and for those individuals with felony convictions, 22% less. However, that is only the case for those individuals who can get past the application stage since many employers discriminate against incarcerated individuals. Also, with the pandemic, job availability is already scarcely low, and the OECD expects unemployment to reach 10% by the end of 2020.

Due to the prejudices, discrimination laws, and the recent impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated individuals, the “homelessness-jail cycle” persists. Incarcerated individuals not only face obstacles involving reinstating themselves into society following their incarceration, but they also face the harrowing struggle of a lack of resources and opportunities, which overall perpetuates the cycle further.

Covid Cannot Stop Meals On Wheels

By Hannah Keyes

Meals on Wheels of Mercer County (MOWMC) is one of the more than 5,000 community-based programs across the country that seeks to address both the nutritional and social needs of its participants. This includes homebound elderly and disabled individuals who cannot shop for or prepare food for themselves and are often living in hunger and isolation.

According to a new survey conducted by Meals on Wheels (MOW) of America, every 4 out of 5 MOW programs have reported that their demand has at least doubled since the start of COVID-19. Given the current situation of the pandemic, those who are older and more susceptible to sickness are at higher risk and are extremely vulnerable during this time. There are now more seniors staying in their homes and requiring help.

Additional studies from MOW of America reveal that 1 in 4 seniors live alone and 1 in 5 feel lonely. Thus, MOW makes it a priority to see to it that their participants not only receive warm meals but that they are greeted by a friendly face. The program relies heavily on their volunteers who deliver meals as they not only give participants their food but interact with them and form meaningful relationships. Sasa Olessi Montaño, the Chief Executive Officer of the Mercer County branch, as well as a member who serves on the national board of Meals on Wheels of America stated, “Our secret sauce is that daily contact.”

However, the virus has caused the staff of MOWMC to have to adjust their normal operations. All volunteers are now required to wear masks and gloves as they provide a “touchless delivery”, wherein they knock on the participant’s door or window, hang the meal (in a bag) on the door, and walk away at least six feet and wait to make eye contact with the participant so that they know they will get their meal. There has also been a calling feature implemented where more seasoned volunteers will call participants and check-in to see how they are doing. This provides the “secret sauce” of daily interaction that is missing from the new touchless delivery. Additionally, MOWMC is participating in the new “Feed a Senior, Help a Restaurant” and “Hospitality Works” programs. These are a means through which to provide for seniors, local restaurants, and hardworking medical staff.

The MOWMC delivers meals in East Windsor, Ewing, Hightstown, Princeton, Trenton, West Windsor, Lawrence, and specific areas within Hamilton. The program is funded federally, however, it is significantly underfunded and is mostly aided through community support. Private dollars are raised in order to ensure that no one is turned away. MOWMC is partnered with Gourmet Dining at Rider University to provide hot meals to its participants Monday through Friday every week. Weekend meals can also be made available to participants. There are two different meal plan options (A and B), they both consist of one hot meal that includes meat/pasta and two sides, as well as one cold bag that includes milk, bread, salad, and dessert. All meals are low sodium and diabetic friendly and can be catered towards the individual’s dietary restrictions.
Olessi Montaño labels MOW as a “comprehensive nutrition program” rather than simply a social service program. It offers nutrition education and counseling for those who have limited food options or are immuno-compromised. Olessi Montaño states, “Our meals are therapeutic in nature, which means that we work with our participants to identify their diets. Whatever their therapeutic need is, our meals are tailored to it and we work with them on that.”
In addition to home-delivered meals, MOWMC offers several other smaller programs such as their Pet Pantry where bi-weekly pet food bags are distributed to participants who own animals. The Books on Wheels program allows volunteers to deliver books to participants through the Trenton Public Library. There are also “Holiday Meals” for participants who will be alone during the holidays, “Blizzard Bags” for inclement weather, and shelf-stable groceries that are delivered once a month.

If one is interested in being served through or volunteering for Meals on Wheels, please contact through email, info@mealsonwheelsmercer.org, or call (609)-695-3483.

The Census Counts on You

By Kristine Spike

Once every ten years, the U.S. government conducts the census. This started back in 1790 and is critical as the census accounts for numerous aspects. Often argued to be the most notable is the fact that the census is responsible for the number of seats each state receives in the House of Representatives. However, the census also determines the amount of government funding different areas receive. This includes programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP), etc. One issue with the census presents itself time and time again. Are individuals being underrepresented or missed in the census count? This directly correlates to the amount of funding that areas receive, and it is no coincidence that the underrepresented areas are the ones that lack a multitude of resources, as well as areas with a large number of people experiencing homelessness.

For the first time in history the census is now available online. This is revolutionary and makes the census more accessible to millions of people; however, this still poses a huge problem. There are an estimated 19 million Americans who do not have fixed broadband services. That being said, efforts have been made in Mercer County to make sure that everyone is accounted for through Complete Count Committees. People need to know that the census is taking place before they can worry about filling it out. The federal government has commercials, and mail advertisements, but for people with limited internet/TV access and no mailing address, these are not effective measures.

Complete Count Committees in Mercer County have utilized resources such as ad space on billboards,in bus terminals, and on busses themselves, and have canvassed at various community locations. The advertisements are marketed to certain target groups. They specifically incorporate messages for groups that have had low response rates in the past. For example, Black and Latino men ages 15-28, and people with disabilities are featured on the advertisements and billboards due to their lack of representation in the prior census. Also, members of the committee have gone door to door and even to shelters leaving fliers with information on what the census is and how to fill it out. These have been distributed in Spanish and English in order to reach as many people as possible.
After ensuring people know about the census, the second phase is helping people complete it. There are three ways to complete the census: online, by phone, or paper (mail) response. In order to help with online responses, The Complete Count Committees have set up various access centers where people can come in and quickly complete the census. These areas currently closed due to Covid-19 but will reopen when deemed safe. Another option is by phone. By calling 844-330-2020 (English speakers) or 844-468-2020 (Spanish speakers) people are given the option to efficiently answer the questions through the phone. Note there are also 59 other languages the census is offered in, see (2020census.gov for full listing).

The committees have been working tirelessly to ensure that as many people in Mercer county are counted as possible. Currently, the response rate is at 49.2% for the county; however, the closer that number is to 100% the better. Additionally, it is important to note that particular areas fall beneath that number. Trenton for example is currently only at a 30% response rate, well under the current response rate. It is important that all communities within Mercer are counted.

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has made the committees change some of their plans. Tarry Truitt, a consultant for the Trenton Area Nonprofit Complete Count Committee, has called it, “an interesting time.” Recent events have shown just how important representation is. The census is taken into account when roads are built/repaired, where shopping plazas are located, and even where hospitals are built. It is truly crucial that people in Mercer county are accounted for. Since most people are not able to leave their homes currently, the social media that was already being utilized to draw attention to the census is now receiving a second wind. Of course, commercials and videos are being utilized, but there has also been a push to get advertisements in local newspapers as this reaches more of the individuals in the target audience. Plans are being made to reach as many people as possible once the country reopens due to COVID-19.

The census has been extended until August 14th, fill it out- Everyone Counts.