In rural Washington, where many families live below the federal poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit our kids hard, and on multiple fronts. They’re struggling with loneliness, lost school time, and hunger. Some have lost parents or other important people in their lives. They’re depressed and anxious.

We want our kids to be resilient, to be supported, and to learn and recover from all this.

One way to help them move forward: strengthen and expand summer learning and after-school programs. Now, through the American Rescue Plan, we have an unprecedented opportunity to do that.

In non-crisis times, these programs help children learn and grow, families balance work with home, and prepare the workforce of the future. They provide kids a safe place after school, with caring adults, where they can learn and have fun. When kids get home, they’ve done their homework, and they’ve had a healthy meal.

During the pandemic, these programs are doing even more. They’re providing kids with connection — a way to talk about their feelings, express their frustrations, and ask questions without fear of being judged. Whether it’s the loss of a grandparent, increased stress at home, or fear of falling behind at school, these programs are there for them.

Summer learning and after-school programs offer students of all backgrounds new opportunities to explore their interests and dive deep into topics they love in ways not always practical during a typical school day. They complement what kids learn in school.

Decades of data prove that after-school and summer learning programs support kids’ social and emotional development, accelerate learning gains, improve students’ reading and math skills, and boost on-time graduation.

At the Northwest Community Action Center in Toppenish, where I work, we are partnering with behavioral health professionals to better equip our after-school program staff in helping kids deal with these and other mental and emotional health issues. We’ve also developed tips and resources for coping, and we are planning a live “ask the doctor” online session.

Parents love after-school programs. In Washington, 92% of parents say they are satisfied with their child’s overall after-school program experience. Eighty-three percent say the programs help them have peace of mind, and 82% say that after-school helps them keep their jobs. It’s no wonder, then, that 88% of Washington parents say they support public funding for after-school programs.

Yet, historically, after-school and summer learning programs have been underfunded. In Washington, demand for after-school programs has soared over the years. For every student enrolled in an after-school program, five more are waiting to get in. That’s nearly 650,000 children waiting for a spot. Kids from low-income families and communities of color are most likely to miss out, due to cost and lack of access to programs.

We now have a chance to ensure access to high-quality after-school and summer enrichment for every child who wants to enroll. The $2 trillion federal stimulus package gives Washington’s state and school district leaders decision-making power over $1.8 billion to combat learning loss and meet students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs. Using these funds to support and expand after-school and summer learning programs is essential for recovery.