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AUSTIN (KXAN) — There’s no doubt that certain children and families are struggling more during this pandemic than others. Financial situations, location, race, language barriers and access to opportunities and technology divide us in normal times, and it’s definitely true now.

But, there are organizations and schools coming up with creative ways to level the playing field and help families facing tough times. No school, teacher, parent or school district can do it alone.

As the COVID-19 pandemic transforms traditional education as we know it, many educators are asking the same question: How can we learn from each other?

The Pandemic PASS or FAIL project brings reporters from Nexstar stations across the country together to highlight dozens of successful, results-driven solutions that others can learn from. A handful of the journalists and several of the education experts who worked on these impactful stories took part in “A Conversation on Education Equity” to further expand on the programs making a difference in their communities.

The following panel participated in the virtual discussion:

  • Missy Garcia, Senior Director of Community Programs for the YMCA of Austin
  • Dr. Anita Wynn, Assistant Superintendent, Portsmouth Public Schools in Suffolk, VA
  • Paige Collier, Principal of Reed Elementary, Leander Independent School District in Cedar Park, TX
  • Caitlin Sullivan, Director of Outreach and Equity for the Society for Science & the Public
  • Rob Low, KDVR Denver, Colorado, Investigative Reporter
  • Erin Cargile, KXAN Austin, Texas, Investigative Reporter
  • Jennifer Sanders, KXAN Austin, Texas, Anchor/Reporter
  • Adrienne Mayfield, WAVY Norfolk, Virginia, Executive Producer of Investigative and Special Projects
  • Josh Hinkle, KXAN Austin, Texas, Director of Investigations and Innovation

Finding families falling through the cracks

KXAN’s Jennifer Sanders and Reed Elementary Principal Paige Collier in Cedar Park, Texas, kicked off the conversation with a look at how the school librarian at Reed has been playing a key role in reconnecting with families who dropped off the map when the campus shifted to virtual learning last spring.

In Texas alone, when the pandemic suspended in-person learning, the Texas Education Agency said more than 37,000 students lost contact with their schools. A Spanish-speaking mom at Reed Elementary said her own two children and others in her rural Central Texas neighborhood were part of that group.

Carolyn Slavin helps find missing students and connect their families to resources (Leander ISD Photo)
Carolyn Slavin helps find missing students and connect their families to resources (Leander ISD Photo)

The mom and the school librarian teamed up and started going door-to-door to check on families and their needs. The librarian also tested WiFi hotspots out in the field to address connectivity issues, and delivered books from the school library to family’s homes.

Sanders noticed that one of the key factors that led to the program’s success boiled down to trust.

“They had that bond way before the pandemic,” Sanders said. “And [the librarian] really genuinely cares about those families and the children there.”

Collier said the numbers speak for themselves on the success of the school’s all-hands-on-deck approach.

“We had 89% of engagement in the spring,” Collier said. “After technology deliveries and heroic efforts by our educators, we were able to get 99% of families engaged.”

Another concern across the country is how to measure students’ potential loss of learning and get them back on track after missing out on three months of instruction when schools closed.

Combatting COVID-19 learning loss

WAVY’s Chris Horne reported on the paced learning program at Portsmouth Public Schools in Suffolk, Virginia. He discovered some campuses didn’t have online learning in the spring, which resulted in more than 1,500 students losing contact with teachers from March to June.

In summer school, Portsmouth teachers started doing quick assessments with students to check progress on coursework. Once they identified gaps, they worked with those children in small groups and focused on building those skills.

“This ensures kids moving into the next grade are not going to fail to master the new concepts because they haven’t quite mastered the old,” said WAVY investigative producer Adrienne Mayfield, who worked with Horne on the story.

Portsmouth teachers train online to prepare for the school year (WAVY Photo)
Portsmouth teachers train online to prepare for the school year (WAVY Photo)

Dr. Anita Wynn, the Assistant Superintendent of Portsmouth Public Schools said students are in a much better position to tackle virtual classes during the fall semester. Funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act program and repurposed funds in the school district budget have helped purchase technology devices for students, and supplied them with internet access at home.

Wynn said school leaders also decided to switch to a 4-day school week for students, which allows teachers time to regroup, connect with parents and lesson plan on Fridays. They are stressing to teachers the importance of communication, collaboration and being compassionate to families during this tough time.

We are no longer just teaching our students, we’re teaching our families,”

Dr. Anita Wynn, Assistant Superintendent of Portsmouth Public Schools

“And while we’ve always embraced our families and partnered with them, this is very different because we’re actually all learning together,” Wynn said.

Solution to hands-on science at home

Virtual learning is a challenge for any teacher, especially science teachers who are accustomed to creating lessons filled with hands-on experiments.

Erin Mayer, a science teacher at Casey Middle School in Boulder, Colorado is celebrating the fact that her students will still get that interactive experience. She won a national grant from the Society for Science & the Public to purchase science kits for her classes to use at home. Priority consideration is given to schools that support low-income students and students underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“Making STEM interactive and hands-on is a challenge on a regular day, especially for teachers who are at schools where they don’t have the resources that maybe other area have,” said Caitlyn Sullivan, Director of Outreach and Equity for the Society for Science & the Public.

KDVR’s Rob Low explained in his report on the take-home science kits that more than half of the students on the campus qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. They get to choose from about 12 different kits, depending on their interest.

“If kids are deciding the topic themselves, they tend to be more engaged,” Low said.

Mayer was one of 100 teachers across the country to receive the kits. Outside of a pandemic, the organization gives to about 66 teachers, but this year it was able to give more because it spent less on grants for classroom materials.

Early learning program finds virtual success

Programs that serve families with children younger than school-age are also finding ways to succeed during the pandemic. The YMCA of Austin had a choice to continue its Early Learning Readiness Program last Spring when schools closed, but parents overwhelmingly wanted to continue.

What was once a two-day a week program taught in a local pre-kindergarten classroom, quickly moved to a Zoom call format where families were excited to still have the interaction with others and opportunity for their children to continue learning.

Nayeli Trevino YMCA program 090420
Nayeli Trevino, 2, in a Manor ISD classroom at the YMCA Early Learning Readiness Program (Courtesy Annabel Trevino)

The free program, aimed at helping low-income families get their children on track and ready for pre-school is offered through five campuses at two Austin-area school districts. Missy Garcia, Senior Director of Community Programs for the YMCA of Austin told KXAN’s Investigative Reporter Erin Cargile they would love to offer it to more districts and schools.

“Grant funding only goes so far,” Cargile said. “They do what they can with the money they have.”

The YMCA of Austin measures the success of the program, which is offered through various YMCA branches across the country.

“We constantly evaluate all of our programming,” Garcia said. “The surveying that we do with families, and we also do national evaluations on the families that we serve.”

These are just a handful of the stories that are part of the nationwide Pandemic Pass or Fail project.

Click here to read and watch these stories and more that explore education equity during the COVID-19 pandemic and successful solutions helping bridge the gap.

You can also join the conversation by sending in story ideas and joining the Pandemic PASS or FAIL Facebook page.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.