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Honor Society Students Struggle to Get In Community Service Hours During a Pandemic. Safely, That Is.

Surya Chokkar, National Honor Society president at Seven Lakes High School, is one of many student NHS leaders trying to figure out how to safely do community service despite COVID-19.
Surya Chokkar, National Honor Society president at Seven Lakes High School, is one of many student NHS leaders trying to figure out how to safely do community service despite COVID-19.
Photo by Schaefer Edwards

High school wasn’t a cakewalk before the pandemic, and it’s sure gotten tougher due to the frustrating technical difficulties of digital classes and the feelings of isolation brought about by COVID-19. National Honor Society members are one group of high schoolers with a particularly tricky task ahead of them in the coming months, as they have to clock-in hours upon hours of community service each semester in addition to maintaining top-notch grades to stay in the prestigious club’s good graces.

For the estimated one million-plus NHS members nationwide, COVID-19 has created a unique problem: How can students safely get out and lend a hand in the community when there’s a highly infectious disease rampaging around the globe?

“It’s just a lot of new things, I think. This is different from any other year,” said Surya Chokkar, NHS president at Seven Lakes High School in Katy. That means popular large-scale service activities that bring people together face-to-face will be tough or impossible to carry out safely.

For example, one of the main ways many Seven Lakes NHS members fulfill the club’s service requirement is by helping with “Santa Cops,” an annual donation drive that the Katy Independent School District Police Department coordinates with Katy ISD schools to buy Christmas presents for kids in local orphanages or foster care.

Thanks to COVID-19, there’s no way events like Santa Cops can proceed as in past years. “We go in usually a group of like 50 people to Target and Walmart,” Chokkar said, “and so now since we can’t do that, we’re debating on whether we need to do smaller groups, or just have the officers shop, or if we want the members to just go shop, wrap and deliver those presents themselves.”

“I think this is probably the best time to do service for our community” said Amanda Zavala, a senior at Lamar High School in the Houston ISD and president of Lamar NHS. “Right now, we know everyone is facing different challenges, and I think it’s really important to make the most out of our situation.”

Chokkar said the main worry he’s heard from Seven Lakes NHS members, many of whom live with older family members who are especially susceptible to COVID-19, is how to fulfill their community service requirements while not putting themselves or their families in danger of falling ill. “They’re asking for other ways they can get service hours without leaving their house or putting themselves at risk,” Chokkar said.

One digital service opportunity Seven Lakes NHS is pushing is an online voter registration drive ahead of November’s election, Chokkar said. Seven Lakes NHS is one of many NHS chapters that have partnered with DoSomething.org, a nonprofit focused on youth-led social change initiatives, to allow members to create personalized web pages with voter registration resources. Students can then share their unique web pages online through social media to try and convince friends and family to register to vote, earning service hours in the process.

Lots of Seven Lakes NHS members like to tutor other students to earn service hours, so Chokkar said his chapter is also providing advice and technical tips for students who want to continue tutoring remotely through video chats and other platforms, including a digital education service “that allows you to use both video calling and course creation so it’s easier to tutor” that Chokkar, an experienced tutor, is developing himself as a personal business in his spare time.

Zavala and her fellow Lamar NHS officers have been working for weeks on a list of service projects that can be done from home. She said Lamar NHS has started coordinating canned food donations to the Houston Food Bank, and has also encouraged members to write letters to elderly folks in nursing homes to fulfill their service requirements. In addition, Lamar NHS is planning a donation drive for household supplies and toiletries for families struggling financially due to COVID-19.

Another COVID-19-inspired change Lamar NHS has made, Zavala said, is a reduction in the per-semester service requirement, down from 12 hours to eight. Seven Lakes NHS hasn’t reduced its membership requirement of 10 service hours per semester, Chokkar said, but his chapter did decide to give members some extra leeway with the deadlines for submitting proof of completed service projects.

Zavala and Chokkar both said that guidance from the national NHS organization has helped them plan for a school year like no other. The national NHS created a COVID-19 landing page on its website to help local chapters create pandemic-minded plans, which includes a list of “virtual service ideas” such as book drives for kids in need or online fundraisers for COVID-19 relief across the country.

The website also has resources to help chapters operate virtually and tips on how to track service hours digitally, as opposed to with a massive paper trail of hard-copy forms like many chapters still use, and that would be extra difficult to manage with so many students not coming onto school campuses any time soon.

Luckily, both the Lamar and Seven Lakes NHS chapters already have digital service hour tracking systems in place. Lamar NHS uses a Google Forms submission system on its website to keep track of service hour progress, and Chokkar said that Seven Lakes NHS uses a service-tracking program called x2VOL, which was created by intelliVOL, a tech company located just outside of Dallas in Coppell, TX.

Michele Pitman, intelliVOL’s founder and CEO, said that COVID-19 has been a boon to x2VOL sales over the past several months, which can be seen in a 15 percent bump in new subscriber growth since this time last year. “We have seen a lot of referrals. We’ve seen a lot of inbound requests, and so we’re onboarding schools all the time,” Pitman said.

Even though Chokkar and Zavala are in charge of their NHS chapters, that doesn’t mean they’re off the hook from completing service hours themselves.

Chokkar said he plans to pitch-in with revamping the Santa Cops toy drive and plans to try his hand at online voter registration outreach in addition to his virtual tutoring work. Zavala said she’s already started collecting cans for the Houston Food Bank, and plans to write letters to nursing home residents in the weeks ahead. “I did have a great grandfather that was living in a nursing home, and I know how much it put a smile on his face when I wrote him cards,” she said.

Through her work with x2VOL, Pitman has seen over the past several months just how hard student NHS leaders throughout the country have been working to keep making a difference despite the pandemic. She’s constantly inspired by their creativity and can-do attitudes in the face of a crisis that’s continued to befuddle even the most experienced adults.

“Nothing is stopping this particular generation,” Pitman said.

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