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Austin teachers are problem solving to get their students the tools they need for virtual learning during COVID

By Katya Bandouil

Austin Teachers During COVID

After a long day of lesson planning and running summer classes, Brenda Townsend sits down for a parent-teacher conference at 11:30 p.m.

The next day she is awake at 8 a.m. to read with a student who is unable to attend her 9 a.m. class that month.

Townsend is a teacher at International High School, teaching students that are newly resettled in the United States, many with limited resources and knowledge of English. When Austin Independent School District (AISD) education transitioned online, she accommodated each family’s circumstances.

Townsend checks in with her students daily. After a seven-year break from the summer program, she was compelled to go back to lead English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction for refugee students. She took on this program to ensure that her students would continue practicing their English despite any circumstances they would face during the pandemic.

“I just want the kids to learn the most they can. I wanted them to have really good quality instruction.”

While keeping in close communication with her students and their families, Townsend’s role as a teacher naturally expanded to a contact that the families could confide in.

At the beginning of quarantine, Townsend called each parent to brief them about the transition to digital learning. Townsend recalls, “After I did my initial spiel, a parent said, ‘Miss, I have no food for my son.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh no, let’s forget all the school stuff, let me find a bus stop, let me get in contact with our social worker. Who cares about education right now, we got to get this family some food.”

In AISD, 52.4 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. Virtual education has amplified these issues for many families, leaving teachers to help fill in the gaps.

In the spring, AISD Chromebooks were offered for students grades 3-12. In the upcoming school year, AISD is preparing to give out 24,000 iPads for students in pre-K through third grade. It is also expected for 10,000 wifi hotspots to be set up around Austin. 

Although resources have been provided, multiple barriers have prevented equitable education to exist in a virtual setting.  

Pre-K teacher, Francesca Fowler noticed that most of her students used their parent’s cell phones to Zoom or were unable to attend her online meeting altogether.

“One of my families, they have four boys at home and two boys that are Zooming take turns going on the back porch to Zoom with me every day for an hour in the Texas heat, swatting bugs out of their face,” Fowler says. 

As a part of an AISD pre-K program, Fowler made home visits at the beginning of the year. When the pandemic started, she recalled that many homes did not have a well-lit space to sit through a Zoom meeting and many homes did not have toys or books.

Fowler started multiple projects on an education funding website called DonorsChoose as soon as the pandemic began to provide snacks and learning tools, including Chromebooks for each student.

“Little children learn best with hands-on materials and a lot of our children don’t have very many books at home and they don’t have a lot of toys at home,” Fowler says. “I put in a project for each individual child and I got 18 projects funded and the materials were sent directly to the children’s homes.”

Although AISD has provided meals for pick-up, some families are unable to collect them due to lack of transportation, Fowler says. To help those families, Fowler created a fundraiser to provide them with extra snacks. 

DonorsChoose currently has 185 active projects based out of Austin.

Fifth-grade teacher, Carolina Martinez, applied for and received a $1,000 grant from DonorsChoose and instantly set out to provide her students with essential products. During a regular school year, Martinez readily provides her students with snacks, knowing that they often do not eat breakfast.

“I bought hygiene stuff, deodorant, toothbrushes and some supplies and I was able to contact most of my 28 students,” Martinez says. “With the economy right now, I opened another project asking for supplies.”

Grant writing has been a common practice for teachers, well before COVID-19. When the district is unable to provide supplies, teachers ask for donations to supplement what the students are lacking. Special education teacher, Elaine Stark, started asking for donations for students as soon as schools closed down in March.

“(The recent pandemic) was a very good reason to get the old grant writing pen out again,” Stark says. “I don’t think I’ve done anything that any other teacher doesn’t do. All teachers go the extra mile for their students and spend a lot of out of pocket money. A lot of time trying to provide for their students in ways bigger than they can personally afford.”

Teachers are reaching for all the tools in their arsenal to pivot during the ongoing changes in and outside of the classroom. 

“There’s a lot up in the air, but I’ll tell you what’s not up in the air,” Stark says. “The teachers are going to do their best for their kids, if we’re teaching virtually or in person. The one thing I do know is the kids are worth it.”

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