When the Healdsburg Education Foundation (HEF) committed to purchasing Chromebooks for every HUSD student in grades six to 12 back in 2016, no one could have imagined how vital the initiative would be in responding to the historic global health and economic crisis in which we find ourselves today.
On Friday, March 13, when principals, teachers and students should’ve been excitedly dismissing for Spring Break, Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel instructed teachers to prepare take-home work and online lesson plans for their students. District leadership was already thinking about the “what ifs” — and thankfully so, because all of those “what ifs” soon became our reality.
Virtual classroom instruction began for junior high and high school students the Tuesday after Spring Break ended, following a day of professional development amongst staff where they game-planned their new approach. Because of support from community partners like the John Jordan Foundation and individual donors cultivated by HEF, students already had their devices with them, and teachers had already been trained to use technology in and out of the classroom.
Healdsburg elementary students were also provided with their own devices, thanks to the addition of a new fleet of Chromebooks purchased by HUSD just prior to the 2019-20 school year. This gave HUSD’s IT squad time to refurbish those devices that had been replaced, enabling them to be redistributed to our students in kingergarten through fifth grade.
The final piece to getting all students connected to their classrooms now is the internet. While WiFi hotspots (another early investment made in part by HEF donors) have been able to cover most families who lack access, around 50 families still remain without an internet connection. HUSD has these devices currently on order and expects to get them to families soon, and HEF is actively fundraising once again to cover these costs.
Distance learning is not the same as being in a traditional classroom, but everyone is working together to figure out how to adjust, and with five weeks under their belts, HUSD staff and administration are cautiously optimistic that our students’ learning will not be significantly disrupted. Teachers are trying harder than ever to ensure all of their students remain engaged, and are finding creative ways to connect; whether it be through Facetime, Zoom, WhatsApp, YouTube, texting or other social media and messaging platforms.
Emily Peterson, who teaches kindergarten at Healdsburg Elementary School and was recently dubbed “Teacher of the Year,” has even been making front yard visits — from a distance — with some of her students.
“Visiting my kids at their homes and seeing them on zoom definitely brightens my day … I now have a private Facebook group for my class to post resources and videos, and some parents have used the group to share their ideas as well as photos (or videos) of the kids,” she said.
In addition to technology, the HUSD has also invested in a variety of staffing positions at each school site that exist specifically to provide extra layers of support for our students.
This has been a consistent area of partnership with the Healdsburg Education Foundation, who have helped to fund Parent Outreach & Engagement Coordinators (thanks again to a grant from the John Jordan Foundation), mentors for our HJH and HHS students that have recently been reclassified as fluent in English, mental health counselors at HHS and most recently, paraprofessionals in the kinder and first grade classrooms. Each of these individuals have stepped up greatly to adapt to their new and expanded roles during the crisis — which include translating homework, providing telehealth calls and checking in with each and every student.
Alma Diaz and Espy Nunez, who were already making an impact in their roles as Bilingual Parent Outreach & Engagement Coordinators for the district, are now proving to be essential in maintaining communication with our HUSD families, especially those for whom English is not their first language. Since school closures, they have personally made hundreds of phones calls to assess the needs of our families, translating as needed and connecting them to whatever services they request.
Along with school food service and transportation staff, Alma and Espy have also helped to get the word out regarding distribution of breakfasts and lunches for 700 students each day for the last several weeks at multiple sites across the community. These meals are provided through the schools’ free/reduced lunch program, for which more than 65% of HUSD students qualify.
Since it is not just our students that are facing food insecurity during this crisis, HUSD has also partnered with the Healdsburg Food Pantry and the Redwood Empire Food Bank to expand their reach, and are now providing more than 100 bags and boxes of fresh produce, meats and non-perishables to families every Thursday at Healdsburg Elementary School.
During this crisis, HEF has been constantly reminded that our schools are not just places that foster learning but are literal communities for our students that provide support and meet many other needs. Here is where our teachers continue to be the real heroes.
Virtual meetings erase the lines between our private and personal lives. Privacy is lost and it can be hard to concentrate with all of the distractions, particularly when others are sharing your space. This has become the reality of our students and our teachers, and our teachers’ ability to recognize and empathize with their students is critical for adjusting expectations and developing authentic relationships that will help their students reach their full potential.
HUSD recognized this need prior to the crisis as well, and started identifying the tools teachers required in order to successfully meet each student where they were — including training on equity, unconscious bias and trauma-informed practices.
There are still many challenges ahead and we are learning everyday how to be better at meeting the needs of our teachers, students and families. But, thanks to a long-time partnership with HEF and the ability to think ahead, HUSD has proven that when a lens of equity is applied to whatever situation we face, the result is an improved readiness to respond to challenges that arise, and a reinforced importance of how the relationships we build in our schools impact the overall health and vitality of our communities.
Sally P. Mackin is Executive Director for Healdsburg Education Foundation (HEF)
The Healdsburg Education Foundation is still fundraising for all the programs and positions listed in this article. If you have the means to contribute, please visit us online at www.hefschools.com.