District aims to create a level online playing field

Acknowledging that newly implemented online classes lack equity, Austin ISD takes action to create it


Dave Winter

Ana Rosa Tenorio and Ivan Ramos, Austin ISD transportation employees based at Nelson Field, unpack Chromebook chargers to be bundled with Chromebooks at Anderson High School. Anderson is one of five locations hosting curbside computer services Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Curbside computer services are also available at Austin and Crockett high schools and at the AISD Performing Arts Center. Photo by Dave Winter.

Alysa Spiro, staff reporter

On April 6, Austin ISD students, parents and teachers took the plunge into the new world of remote learning.

Remote learning relies on access to a functioning device connected to the internet. But how can students participate in remote-learning if they don’t have the technology they need?

A foreign concept to most AISD students and parents just weeks earlier, remote learning has quickly moved to the forefront of our educational experience. The multiple issues embedded in the shift from in-person to remote learning have required district administrators to act quickly with an eye towards obtaining equity among students and families across the district.

Spread Chromebooks, not Corona

Remote learning relies on access to a functioning device connected to the internet. But how can students participate in remote-learning if they don’t have the technology they need?

Thanks to the Everyone:1 program, an AISD initiative to provide all eight- through 12th-graders with free Chromebooks and chargers, many middle and high school students already have their own district-issued Chromebooks.

However, AISD still faces a pressing equity problem; a vulnerable population of third- through seventh-graders  who lack Chromebooks. And while AISD is working to deliver Chromebooks to these elementary and middle schoolers, high school students who have lost their Chromebooks or left them at school have also faced delays while waiting for replacements. 

Instead of making Knights wait their turn, McCallum administrators have taken matters into their own hands. Following the extended-spring break, McCallum administrators went on a rescue mission to deliver Chromebooks to Mac students who left theirs at school before spring break so they wouldn’t be forced to wait to receive a replacement device. 

Dave Winter
AISD technology employee Bill Carreon (center) works alongside AISD transportation employees Ivan Ramos (left) and Ana Rosa Tenorio (right) to prepare Chromebooks for possible distribution at the AISD curbside computer service location at Anderson High School on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Dave Winter.

“We’ve made contact, or attempted to make contact, with every single McCallum student,” principal Brandi Hosack said on April 30. “Right now we have a 97 percent success rate of students logging into BLEND and doing their course work. We know there are a couple kids who aren’t engaging, and we don’t know if that’s a technology issue or not. But we’ve sent out technology surveys, asked who needs what, asked who needs a hotspot. We’re trying as best we can to help the needs where they are.”

According the Austin ISD Food Services Facebook page, As of May 5, AISD has delivered more than 15,000 Chromebooks.

Because the district also recognizes the importance of access to reliable Wi-Fi, the district is placing Wi-Fi-equipped buses in high-need apartment complexes and neighborhoods Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.   

This [pandemic] is really putting a spotlight on if our grading processes are equitable. Are we grading for learning? Are we grading for behavior? What are grades, really?

— principal Brandi Hosack

 As of May 6, the district has positioned 110 Wi-Fi buses across the district. 

AISD has also partnered with Capital Metro to provide additional hotspots for students in need of reliable Wi-Fi access. On weekdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Capital Metro will be sending MetroAccess buses to help support AISD initiatives. 

On top of district-wide efforts, McCallum is taking additional action to provide more Mac students Wi-Fi access in their households. Recently, McCallum administrators handed out Wi-Fi hotspots to families who reported not having internet access on a school-wide survey. 

“Ever since high school kids have gotten Chromebooks, a limited number of hotspots have been available to us, because having a Chromebook makes no difference if you don’t have any Wi-Fi,” Hosack said. 

What’s for Lunch?

In some households, reliable access to food is a given. But across the country, over 22 million students participate in the national free lunch program. In AISD, 53 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, one in five U.S children under 12 are going hungry during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Despite schools being closed, AISD is committed to keeping the steady flow of food coming into households that need it.

The Austin ISD Food Services crew at Anderson High School did not let a heavy rain dampen their spirits as they distributed lunches Tuesday. Anderson High is one of 18 AISD curbside meal sites located throughout the city. The distribution sites are open Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Any child under the age of 19 is eligible to receive daily breakfast and lunch Monday-Thursday, with weekend meals distributed on Fridays. The meals are cooked and prepared by staff in Austin ISD kitchens, then chilled so students can reheat the meals at home. The meals include protein, grains, fruits, vegetables and milk. The sites offer a vegetarian option and compostable cutlery by request. Photo by Dave Winter.

AISD has implemented a curbside meal-pickup station at 17 locations across the district and is delivering lunches to neighborhoods via AISD school buses. The meals include protein, grains, fruits, vegetables and milks. Vegetarian meals are available and food is provided until it runs out.

On a May 10 AISD Facebook post, the district announced it has served over half a million meals during campus closures. On average, over 14,000 meals are being served daily.

On April 6, AISD was forced to suspended weekend meal service.

However, 18 days later, on April 24, AISD resumed distributing weekend meals.  Plans for the summer have not yet been announced. 

“A” for Effort

Despite the many steps AISD has taken to promote equity in the online classroom, leadership acknowledges that a remote learning experience is in no way comparable to an in-person one. Consequently, district leadership has implemented as system where it shouldn’t be graded in the same way that traditional classes are.

Life has changed, and these investments support the future of teaching and learning in Austin ISD,

— Austin ISD superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz

Instead of  letter grades, the district has adopted a pass or incomplete grading system. Spring semester grades will not affect grade point averages or class rank.

Hosack sees a silver lining in this new grading policy. 

“We can, and we should be more open-minded about how school is done,” Hosack said. “I think we’ll take the best parts of this thing, and hold on to them, and make some sort of hybrid with the old and the new. Grading is a part of that. This is really putting a spotlight on if our grading processes are equitable. Are we grading for learning? Are we grading for behavior? What are grades, really?”

Equity will continue to be an issue as AISD looks to the fall. In an email sent to parents on May 1, the district announced a proposed $22 million investment in technology and blended learning. 

“Life has changed, and these investments support the future of teaching and learning in Austin ISD,” Superintendent Paul Cruz wrote in the email. “We will return to our campuses with increased staff and support and ideas of how digital tools can complement our face-to-face instruction.”

Although AISD hasn’t announced any definite plans of what the 2020-2021 school year may hold, this message hints the even when the pandemic ends, the district and its schools will not be returning to the ways things were before COVID-19 changed everything.

Dave Winter
McCallum administrator Larry Featherstone has headed an effort to bring needed technology (like hotspots) directly to Mac students who need it. He has also been active in another school project with equity among its goals. Teachers and community members have worked to ensure that every senior gets a Class of 2020 yard sign. Featherstone met with teachers Zulmy Galindo and Elaine Bohls-Graham on Sunshine Drive today in order to coordinate distribution of yard signs to seniors. Photo by Dave Winter.