With kids forced into virtual learning for the last third of the school year, experts warn the normal "summer slide" -- students forgetting academic skills over the summer -- could be much worse this year because of the pandemic.
The slide could be even worse for kids in low-income areas where internet access, learning devices and books are not easy to come by.
That's what led Chrishawndra Matthews, a single working mother and founder of the nonprofit Literacy in the H.O.O.D. (H.O.O.D. stands for "helping out our disenfranchised") to start the hashtag #NoCoronaSummerSlide.
Matthews is worried "when children go back to school or whenever they go back, they won't be on the same grade level as when they left in March. I'm trying to bring awareness so that parents can help children read six to 10 books over the summer."
Since March, Matthews, 47, has given away around 1,500 books. And since she started Literacy in the H.O.O.D. in 2017, she has given away more than 60,000 free books in the Cleveland area.
It all started as Mathews' effort to give her son the best possible education. It expanded into a mission to help instill love of reading into all kids at an early age.
"I started volunteering at various nonprofits, but I wanted to create something that would allow me to go to some of those places that these other big names in literacy don't go. That's what made me name it 'helping out our disenfranchised,' because those are the ones that are forgotten about."
With donations, grants and used book collections from local organizations, Matthews distributes reading material to kids and families in low-income areas with the goal of getting parents and kids to read together a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes a day.
The issue became a priority to Matthews when she began teaching her son, Derrick, to read at the age of 3. She noticed large discrepancies between the library in the city and the one in the suburbs.
"The library in the inner city is just that, the library. But if I drive three lights up the street -- three lights -- and enter into the suburbs, we went from going to the library to having an experience," Matthews told CNN. "When you go inside of the suburban library, there's an area that is designated just for reading with the pillows and reading nooks. They have desks and chairs for little people that make you want to read a book."
Matthews said that experience helped her create a love for reading in her son, one that she is finding more important now than ever.
When the pandemic caused schools to close in March, Matthews began handing out books at schools and churches that were giving away free lunches. At the beginning of summer break, she started the hashtag #NoCoronaSummerSlide to promote daily reading with kids.
She is also offering free bookshelves to families that post pictures of six different books they've read together and is hosting local pop-ups in order to get books to kids while they're out of school.
"It's a magnet," said Matthews. "When I go to various events and put the books out, once the children figure out the books are free, they are so excited."
Connecting with people
One of the reasons that Matthews believes Literacy in the H.O.O.D. is able to help the disenfranchised is because they can relate to her and her son.
"I look like them and they look like me. My son looks like their kids and their grandkids. And we're approachable," said Matthews. "If I see a dad, I go up to him and say, 'Can I give you a book to read to your daughter?'"
Matthews focuses on helping families in the inner city but says it doesn't matter where kids live, "if you're in a home with readers, those children at home are going to read."
That approach is working in Matthews' own home. Her son, Derrick, who is now 9, just passed his third-grade reading test and has started his own book club, Boys Do Read. His club is partnering with a local mobile video game truck; in order to get inside to play the games, kids must first spend about 30 minutes reading.
As her son helps spread the importance of reading to other kids, Matthews focuses on getting her message, and books, into as many homes as possible.
She said it’s all part of her work “investing in mind, one book at a time.”