Staff Reflection: Shannon Lyford

Shannon Lyford is the Assistant Director for Educational Partnerships at the Center for Community Engagement. This week, she provides a thoughtful reflection on her experience joining the CCE team in a time of transformation for the Middlebury community at large and how she works alongside community leaders to navigate challenges created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To learn more about the ways in which the CCE creates meaningful connections with youth in Addison County, visit our Community Engagement Organizations website or email Shannon Lyford at 

Coming into the CCE as a new staff member this past summer put me in a unique position to learn and identify how the CCE can play a role in addressing the rise in youth educational challenges caused by COVID. The pandemic has impacted the world on a global scale, causing varying degrees of trauma among all of us. While adults have had jobs disrupted and social commitments canceled, children have seen school moved online and isolation from peer groups. As children’s brains are still developing, these social interactions are critical for children to learn social skills and self-management skills. The pandemic has made it more difficult for children to interact with others in settings that are important to develop positive social-emotional skills. Masks and social distancing, important safety measures allowing children to be physically together, also prevent children from learning how their words and actions impact others using facial and other visual cues. Our children need additional support now more than ever, coming out of a period of global stress and isolation.

Youth with marginalized identities (for example: BIPOC youth, LGBTQIA+ youth, disabled youth, youth living in poverty) and youth living in rural environments have faced even greater challenges during this time. Youth with marginalized identities often have less access to afterschool programs or educational supports than their more privileged peers. In rural communities, like much of Middlebury’s local Addison County, transportation challenges and political polarization have led to greater isolation during the pandemic and increased conflict at schools between students. Efforts to support our children must take the identities of individual youth into account in order to provide an equitable experience for all.

Schools are working to support students during this challenging time, requiring major adaptations and often preventing a sense of stability for children in the schools. For youth experiencing grief, mental health issues, or the effects of poverty and/or racism, these changes have been especially challenging. For many youth, the pandemic has created a level of stress that has caused them to act out against teachers and other students. There has been a significant rise in behavioral challenges in schools across the US, from verbal arguments, physical fighting, bullying, property damage, and other defiant behavior. Children witnessing violent behavior from other students are often scared to come to school, disrupting the learning of all kids. In some schools across the country (and in Addison County schools), children have become increasingly polarized in their views, often aligning with the views of the adults they live with. Schools have also seen an increase in bullying and harassment behaviors among children with different viewpoints, often leading to BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ youth being targeted and feeling unsafe and unsupported in their school.

A small child facing the camera sits in the grass next to an adult who is facing away from the camera. In the background, an adult and a child sit in colorful Adirondack chairs.
Shannon meets a Community Friends mentee at the Community Friends Fall 2021 Match Day.

In addition to the pandemic and all the social-emotional challenges associated with the disruption, disappointments, and isolation that we’ve all faced over the past two years, schools are also facing staffing shortages which weakens schools’ ability to provide important supports to children. The understaffing in schools combined with higher social-emotional needs has led to the need for schools to rely more heavily on volunteer and community support; this has also provided an opportunity for community engagement organizations to play a role in supporting youth. One local middle school, Middlebury Union Middle School (MUMS), recently brought parents of students together to facilitate a conversation around solutions to the current school climate. MUMS identified several areas of focus impacting many of its students and families including transportation, joy and connection, outdoor time, and food access.

The CCE has strengthened its efforts to connect with schools during this critical time, joining local school board meetings and connecting with community engagement committees with school districts. As a new staff member at the CCE (and new employee to Addison County!), I came into the role during a challenging time with a fresh view- an experience that was both refreshing and challenging. I sought to form connections with as many staff in the local schools as I could. I connected with school counselors, social-emotional leaders, and teachers about the needs of their students and how the CCE could support their efforts to educate their kids in a safe and nurturing environment. As a team, the CCE spent time discussing our response to the difficulties faced by schools. We continue to listen and connect with schools to understand how best to provide support, and we continue to seek opportunities for Middlebury students to get involved, as aligned with Middlebury and K-12 school COVID guidelines.

Our Youth & Mentoring CEOs continued to work with kids as much as possible given restrictions around vaccinations. Community Friends met with their mentees virtually to continue strong mentoring relationships they’ve formed with local youth. Nutrition Outreach and Mentoring (NOM) brought virtual cooking classes to local kids’ kitchens, dropping off fresh ingredients and guiding kids and their adults through cooking healthy meals together. Page One Literacy Project have created virtual read-alouds with kids to get them excited about reading, and they have also worked closely with the Ilsley Public Library to create craft kits for kids to take home and learn about different stories. I have been inspired by the efforts of our Middlebury leaders to adapt to continue providing critical support to children during the pandemic.

During these challenging times, it’s important to remember the strength of our communities. By coming together to address issues that impact us all (and the future of our community and country), we can better support each other and find solutions. While connection looks different now than it has in the past, the pandemic has made it clear that coming together as a community, and ensuring that everyone in our community has a voice at the table, is the only way forward.

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