A Texas superintendent shares his method for making sure students are safe and secure during this crisis.
By Skylar Gallop
Regional Advocacy Director - Panhandle at Raise Your Hand Texas
Before the doors of our schools unexpectedly closed in response to the need for social distancing to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, 5.4 million Texas children walked through them five days a week, 10 months of the year. Each day, every child was seen — physically seen — by an educator.
It’s called a wellness check and it’s the most basic and most critical aspect of our state’s public education system. Is the child hungry? Is the child well-rested? Does the child seem emotionally healthy? Is the child injured? Neglected?
In Lubbock-Cooper ISD, a rapidly growing suburb of Lubbock under the direction of Superintendent Keith Bryant, the district quickly developed and implemented a structured program for conducting wellness checks during school closure. In their first week of closure, Lubbock-Cooper teachers called each family to share the district’s plans for at-home learning. Bryant, who was named the 2019 Superintendent of the Year by the Texas Association of School Boards, said teachers asked families this list of questions:
2. Do you need any supplies or groceries?
3. Do you have internet access?
4. Was your family accessing meals while we were in school?
5. Will you want to access them now when the school is closed?
6. Can you come to your campus to pick up meals curbside?
7. Do you have any medications you need to pick up from the nurse’s office?
8. Will your student be able to complete online assignments with their school-issued technology?
9. Do you need another way to access the content?
10. Are you receiving district emails and phone calls?
Mr. Bryant said teachers were able to talk to both families and students on these calls and the information gathered was shared with the necessary staff.
“The response we had was tremendous,” Bryant said. “Parents appreciated us checking on them and their well-being before we even talked about academics. From this, we engaged Communities in Schools to help with some needs. We have counselors that followed up in some circumstances, and we had our police officers deliver some food and supplies to some families. (The food and supplies) were provided by our Pirate Pantry, a volunteer-led donation closet on every campus.”
Since that initial call, LCISD teachers have continued to contact each of their students individually at least twice a week, tracking those contacts. If, after five days, a student remains unreachable, the school leadership can trigger an at-home wellness check.
The program, which includes plans for continually following up with families and measures to ensure student information is kept confidential, speaks to the district’s dedication to its students’ whole-child wellness and privacy, Bryant said.
“Nothing is more important than the well-being of our students,” he said. “Our desire is to assure that students are taken care of physically and emotionally. If they are doing well, then they will engage mentally in the academic work. During this time, we are separated but not isolated.”
As our state’s school doors remain shut, experts agree answers to these kinds of imperative questions will become much more difficult to find. Children will go “unseen” for weeks, if not months, as some school officials have indicated that closures may very well continue straight into the summer. The summer months, historically, are a time when the number of child abuse reports drop. Experts say the drop is not indicative of fewer instances of abuse, but fewer reports. Sadly, we are seeing the occurrence already during the COVID-19 school closure. The Texas Tribune reported during late February through mid-March, hotline tips to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services fell from 11,179 a week to 9,344.
The economic hardships occurring from business closures will also have an impact on our students. Hundreds of thousands of workers across the state applied for unemployment over the last two weeks and may no longer be able to afford or maintain cell phone service or internet access.
Bryant explained, “This work is important, not just because we, as school leaders, care about our students’ well-being. It’s necessary because when school does resume, it is incumbent upon the education community as a whole to ensure that kids are ready to learn.”
We are watching our education community reinvent the system in which they have worked for generations in a matter of weeks and with little to no warning. The grace, selflessness, and skill with which our teachers and school leaders have responded is awe-inspiring. But these traits are not new, they are not borne of this crisis. It’s who they are and who they have always been. Once we ensure the basic needs of our children are met, teachers are then able to engage in the beautiful process of not simply educating, but preparing our children to flourish in a rapidly changing world.
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