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A mother and son work together on a school project

Keeping Central Texas students on track through Coronavirus

Virginia Potter

The rhythms and rituals of school are a part of our daily lives: managing the morning drop-off schedule, packing school lunches, helping with homework. But since coronavirus shuttered classrooms and pushed our children into Zoom calls, those routines have been replaced with a profound appreciation for what schools deliver to our families and communities every day.

If educating our children to develop as human beings wasn’t enough, schools connect them with friends, serve up reliable and nutritious meals, bring a community of trusted adults into their lives, and provide after-school programs. To meet the needs of the most vulnerable students, community organizations come alongside the district to provide additional services, from individual support and coaching to drop-out prevention and college preparation.

When schools were forced to close their doors this spring, students experienced an abrupt and painful transition, absorbing the sudden loss of these constants in their lives. To ensure the greatest burden wouldn’t be shouldered by students with the greatest need, Central Texas organizations like Communities In Schools of Central Texas and Breakthrough Central Texas pivoted their service models, finding new ways to connect with students and families in a time of increasing need.

Supporting low-income students during a pandemic requires nothing less than a herculean effort. While the transition hasn’t been easy, it gets to the heart of the core mission of these two organizations, both of which take a “do whatever it takes” approach to helping students succeed. From spring closures to the beginning of a new school year, here’s how they’re ensuring vulnerable students aren’t falling between the cracks.

Helping to Stabilize Families

It isn’t easy to keep up with schoolwork when your family is in crisis. Due to the pandemic and its impact on businesses, many families lost income and have been left struggling to meet basic needs: food and medicine, housing, transportation, and technology.

Communities In Schools and Breakthrough Central Texas have mobilized staff and resources to provide emergency assistance, from direct cash payments to connections with emergency resources like local food banks, employment opportunities, support for rent and bills, low-cost internet and phone services, and COVID-19 testing. Both organizations switched gears from their regular responsibilities to meet these urgent needs as quickly as possible.

“While our mission is to support our students on their path to college and post-secondary success, we realize that at this time, one of the most impactful ways we can do that is to help them meet their immediate, physical needs,” said Tiffany Hung, Associate Director of High School Programs at Breakthrough Central Texas.

Providing Essential Technology

For many students, engaging remotely isn’t as simple as pulling out their laptop and logging on. If they even have a computer at home, they may be sharing it with others in the household or competing for limited bandwidth on a cellular data plan. Virtual support for these students started with getting them essential technology – lending out laptops, tablets, and chargers, and sharing information on free or reduced-price internet services – so they won’t be left further behind academically.

Supporting Student Wellbeing

Through the pandemic, asking students about their mental and physical health has come first. Typically, Communities In Schools has an office in each school, providing an environment where students feel safe and supported. As one representative shared, on-campus offices provide a sense of privacy for discussing sensitive topics. It can be hard to replicate that environment in busy homes with family members present, but advisors build on an existing foundation of trust to help students navigate the uncertainty, stress, and fear of this time.

Along with the loss of day-to-day normalcy, children are also missing their friends. Physical distancing requirements can make it difficult or impossible to arrange time with people outside the home, yet maintaining social connections can go a long way towards supporting mental wellbeing. Communities In Schools has kept a sense of community by holding group video sessions so students can see one another and feel less isolated, and middle school students with Breakthrough Central Texas have joined “After School Hours” to get help with homework and stay connected with classmates.

Connecting with Families Virtually

An unexpected benefit of remote support has been the increased connection with both students and their families. Engaging parents and other family members through the pandemic has resulted in stronger, more trusting relationships.

“Under these conditions – when people need to stay at home to reduce transmission of the virus – our ability to maintain communication and a trusting relationship with families is literally keeping children safe and helping families regain stability,” said Suki Steinhauser, Chief Executive Officer at Communities in Schools of Central Texas. “Ultimately, this makes it possible to reduce the impact of collective and personal traumas that impede student learning.”

At times, virtual meetings have made it possible to connect with families who were rarely able to meet due to long work hours and transportation issues. Breakthrough Central Texas pointed to a recent Zoom meeting to review college costs, where an advisor was able to ensure both student and family understood the process of enrollment and registration. After addressing critical questions and concerns, the meeting helped them feel confident about the student’s college decision.

As Central Texans prepare for a new school year, what’s ahead is still uncertain. Students may be adjusting to the extra precautions of in-person classes or the added challenges of hybrid or virtual learning. At the same time, the trajectory is unclear for both coronavirus and its economic impact. But as seen in recent months, our most vulnerable students and families won’t be left to navigate these challenges alone. I’m grateful to the dedicated nonprofit staff who are taking on new responsibilities, pivoting on a daily basis, and serving with resourcefulness and profound compassion. Thank you for showing up as heroes for our kids and our community.