Let’s begin by stating the obvious: 2020 was hard! While it was not the path any of us chose, it was the path presented to us, and we had to adapt. Some programs made the difficult decision to shut down completely for the year; others made the equally difficult decision to transition to an entirely new mode of programming — virtual. None of us can deny what we lost by not having in-person programming; however, I’d like to reflect on a few lessons learned about virtual programs.

Flexibility Is Not Optional

In-person programming typically comes with well-defined policies and procedures to ensure the safest possible environment for minors on campuses. While that same goal holds true when making the switch to a virtual program model, there are opportunities in virtual programs to be flexible with some aspects of policy, specifically participant-to-staff ratios.

Participant-to-staff ratios for in-person programs generally depend on participant ages, with the number of participants per staff member increasing as participant age increases. For virtual programming, however, an increase in the participant-to-staff ratio for all age groups is possible while still promoting and maintaining a safe environment and while still maintaining a policy of never allowing participants and staff to be together in a 1-to-1 situation virtually.

Choose Technology Wisely

The process for getting any program approved at a college or university can be quite challenging. The same is true for virtual programs.

Employees and students of a university may have access to proprietary and to third-party applications/technologies as part of their employment or tuition. However, careful consideration should be given to using the same technologies with minors.  

While determining the best platforms on which to operate a program, the following areas deserve review:

  • What are the terms and conditions attached to existing technology contracts?
  • What personal identification information is collected by the technology platform in order for individuals to obtain access?
  • Are there age requirements to sign-up for an individual account?
  • What are the terms and conditions of the specific platform for the university as well as for the program participants? Does the university’s agreement with the technology/application allow minor participants?

In any instance, best practice is to work with technology partners and youth program partners to determine whether accessing these programs is possible and then be transparent about their use with parents during the program registration process.

Build a Culture of Trust and Empowerment with Program Directors

A crucial part of compliance is proactively educating those being monitored. This education includes sharing updates to laws or policies that affect their positions or programs. The pivot to virtual programming that happened in response to the Pandemic highlighted for all of us this critical component of updating those who run programs. In fact, most of us found ourselves in a position of needing to share updates to policies that we had likely never considered before.

If it is not in place already, work to develop a team of higher level, expert stakeholders that can be relied upon to inform policy and operational decisions, as well as disseminate information and educate others who they oversee on any updates and changes being implemented.

Keys to building a culture of trust include providing regular information:

  • Be proactive in providing updates and reminders about vital aspects of policies or procedures that require attention, either immediate or in the future.
  • Schedule periodic meetings directly with program directors and instructors on issues and developments that will affect them.
  • Develop lunch-and-learn sessions targeting aspects of programming.
  • Work together through open discussion and review of program delivery.

Virtual Is Not Going Away

No matter what “normal” we are returning to, virtual programming has proven itself as a viable option and, in some cases, a more cost-effective alternative for programs. Reducing program fees can make programs more accessible to more families. Budgets are a constant concern, and the flexibility in participant-to-staff ratios provided by virtual programs can lead to reduced staffing costs. The virtual environment has also broken down geographic barriers, allowing different programs and campuses to both expand their reach and share costs. Programs are also finding that they can run programs more frequently and across more months than simply June through August. All-in-all, this virtual mode of providing programs will continue to be a viable option. Therefore, being prepared with appropriate policies will be paramount.

Virtual Is Not Scary but It Does Take Practice

Change is hard. It can be especially hard when that change is required in the blink of an eye. Entering 2020, very few if any of us had concrete policies and guidelines ready to implement for virtual programs. Most of us developed them on the fly and, instead of cementing them immediately, chose to be flexible and allow those guidelines to be living, breathing documents that could be readily adapted and updated. This adaptation and update cannot occur unless there are strong partnerships developed with program directors and a willingness to work with those who wish to pilot different systems and programs. Working together through open discussion and review of program delivery not only creates a sense of ownership with the program director, but it also helps develop additional resources within the youth programming community that can provide information and guidance for other programs. Virtual program policies, like all policies, deserve regular review. As we learn new things, we do our jobs better, and we provide higher quality safer programs.

Matt Germino is the Youth Program Compliance Specialist at Penn State University.

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash.