AUSTIN, Texas - Once schools across the nation closed their doors following “shelter in place” orders mandated by local governments teachers, parents and students turned to online learning. Flipping in-class instruction to virtual platforms in such short notice was a learning curve for everyone.
Austin Independent School District is the fifth-largest in Texas, with more than 80,000 students and 129 schools. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the district focused on meal distribution and student access to Chromebooks and WiFi.
Navigating online platforms
Stacey Kelly has two children in AISD and being a student in college herself, she was juggling her own coursework while making sure her kids were accomplishing theirs. She said her family’s biggest challenge was navigating the virtual platforms. Kelly said because her kids go to different schools, they were utilizing multiple platforms, passwords, and experiencing glitches or would just get lost in the system.
“It was all kind of chaotic,” said Kelly. “Of course you get the message or call IT if you have a problem, well everybody’s calling IT and everybody’s gonna have a problem.”
Kelly turned to her children’s teachers for help. She said her daughter was self-sufficient but her son needed guidance along the way. Kelly felt for parents who didn’t have the means to assist their children. As PTA President of an AISD school, she and other parents advocated for students access to chrome books and wifi.
Noelita Lugo, a mother of three working from home during the pandemic, echoed the same grievances about the online platforms. “It’s honestly overwhelming, I’m tech-savvy. I know how to navigate websites but there are so many places you have to visit, so many different passwords,” said Lugo.
Becoming an at-home teaching assistant for her children was difficult. She quickly learned how much her youngest was struggling to read.
“He was bawling. He would say things like I can’t read, I don’t know what the sounds of the letters are. He did not do well with distance learning at all,” Lugo said. “We stuck with it, I reached out to the teacher and we talked about what I can do as a parent to help him get through those points in time where he doesn’t want to be online; he doesn’t want to look at a computer, he just wants to go outside and play.”
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Every child has a different learning style and every student has different needs. Deborah Trejo continued to work in the office during the pandemic and spent most nights and weekends helping her four children with special needs finish up the school year.
“I cannot tell you how many little glitches there are even when you’ve got the technology and you got an adult sitting with you, helping you figure it out,” Trejo explained. “It’s very complicated even for a kid who needs accommodations and needs directions and needs organization.”
Trejo said the distance learning hurt her eldest the most. He went from having extra staff, plenty of hands-on activities, and outings to navigating his final classes through the computer screen.
“With really complicated concepts you need repetition, memorization, time and treatment and they’re just not getting that through these platforms,” said Trejo. “A lot of times kids, especially if they have learning disabilities, they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what to do next. They sit there and watch the video and as far as they’re concerned they did the video. Well, did they learn anything?"
AISD set up a COVID-19 webpage to keep parents up to date on their Learning At-Home website. A district spokesperson said on this site, families may find IT support, special education resourceful learning materials, and meal distribution.
Inclusion for the Fall
Parents are concerned distance-learning may have a detrimental impact on their children’s development.
“I’m concerned that my kindergartner is not going to be able to read,” said Lugo. “I’m worried that my third-grader is going to be where he needs to be by 4th grade.”
The district has formed a task force to identify possibilities of reopening in the fall. One of many is having a 25-percent capacity of students in the classrooms. Kelly’s son will not be finishing school by walking the halls of Pease Elementary. The district has chosen to close the school down by the next academic year.
“He’s going to be in a school where he’s a second or third grader in trailers, it’s small, it’s cramped. You can’t distance six feet apart in a trailer. How is that going to work? Kelly asked. “I don’t feel like AISD is talking to parents enough they sent out a survey but are they really listening?”
AISD will have a new calendar and academic plan for the new school year as well. Trejo adds whatever the district plans to do, she wants parents to be part of the conversation.
“Special ED needs to be central to the look,” said Trejo. “We have to make sure we include everyone when we are designing what it’s going to look like.”
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