OPINION – The COVID-19 crisis is disproportionately hurting economically distressed communities. Many are essential workers who are serving society while putting themselves at risk. By bravely going in to work, they are leading the economic recovery of Southern California.

But what about their kids?

Afterschool programs provide safe and enriching environments for children of working-class families. In Governor Newsom’s recent state budget proposal, he proposed to cut these programs by $100 million. This will devastate a safety net for Angelenos. There is no question that these are tough financial times. But the budget cuts proposed by Governor Newsom put these programs at risk, which in turn harms the working families who rely on these programs. Statewide, more than 60,000 children could lose access to their afterschool program, including over 300 in Compton Unified School District alone, where 96.8% of students are African American or Latinx and more than 80% of students qualify for free-and-reduced price meals.

How will parents work if they do not have childcare? One of these programs, LA’s BEST, reports that 98% of parents with children enrolled in their program say they are only able to keep their job because their children are enrolled in LA’s BEST’s free afterschool program. The afterschool programs that rely on this funding were created to keep our kids safe and allow parents to work. They not only provide a safe space with caring adults, but they provide meals, academic support, and work to close the opportunity gaps across our diverse communities.

And let us not forget about the mental health issues being created by the cataclysmic events that have occurred in 2020. Everyone is living in a stressful situation, but in communities already disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 and the effects of systemic racism, children are also coping with issues like hunger and financial stress.

This is an issue of equity and justice. Sports, structured play, and movement are proven methods for reducing stress and improving mental and physical health. Before the current crises, there was already a huge equity gap for low-income families and their access to opportunities for play. These proposed budget cuts would widen that gap.

Afterschool programs offer sports, structured play, and movement – all proven to have significant effects on students’ physical, academic, and overall health. As they play, they also stay fit, and develop important qualities like self-esteem, teamwork, resilience, and fairness. As a result, these kids also earn higher grades in middle school and are more likely to graduate from high school.

Not every community has the resources to get young people out and active. Disenfranchised neighborhoods in LA and across this state often lack access to P.E. in school, afterschool programs, trained coaches, and safe playgrounds; plus, many families cannot afford to join pricey intramural leagues.

Sadly, play equity was already a major problem before COVID struck. Now, poor children and children of color stand to carry the impact of budget cuts to afterschool programs. Who would have thought? The very thing that is the hallmark of childhood—play—would be the very thing on the table to be dismantled in such a way that those with the least are hurt the most. For while more affluent families can “pay to play” in youth sports programs (with trained coaches and uniforms), the have-nots are unable to participate in the pay-to-play system.

The Women’s Sports Foundation discovered that kids in the greater LA area are five times more likely to be physically inactive when their household incomes are $50,000 or less. Similarly, research by Coaching Corps reveals that only 37% of disadvantaged youth participate in sports, compared to 64% of youth in middle- to upper-income families. The consequences are tragic: 42% of students in the LAUSD are obese or overweight, and black and Latinx students have the highest rates of stress, anxiety, and depression, according to UCLA health data.

The pandemic of COVID-19 provides us with a unique opportunity to address the play equity gap. This is a chance to prioritize programs that have impact and are making a difference. Afterschool enrichment programs which include sports are doing just that – ensuring that kids get to play, regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender or ability.

We need youth sports now more than ever. Let us not leave any kids on the sidelines.

By Renata Simril and Micah Ali

Renata Simril
 is the President & CEO of the LA84 Foundation and President of the Play Equity Fund. Micah Ali is President of the Compton Unified School District and President of the California Association of Black School Educators.