Principals, teachers, cafeteria staff, custodians, bus drivers, counselors, and other school personnel are working around the clock to ensure that students, families, and communities have access to what they need during the disruption of services caused by COVID-19. What started as one week of school closures has evolved into a month, and, in some cases, schools locking their doors for the remainder of the academic year. This has created a revolving door of uncertainty for many educators, who must now think creatively about how to continue to support students despite being physically distant. One shift that is changing the face of education is the transition to online learning. 

Teachers are approaching online learning with different levels of experience. In 2018, San Antonio ISD partnered with Verizon and Digital Promise to provide one-to-one technology to students attending Whittier, Harris, Rhodes, and Longfellow middle schools. Students receive an iPad with internet access that they can take home. Teachers receive ongoing training on tech integration, are familiar with apps to support student learning, and have developed online ways of communicating with families. 

SAISD recently acquired 30,000 devices, including hotspots and Chromebooks to ensure technology access for all students. Carlos Borrego, biology teacher at Brackenridge High School, created a video dissection of plant reproductive structures on YouTube for his students. Delana Keller created a choice board for her pre-K class at Woodlawn Hills Elementary School. These educators demonstrate new possibilities for learning with the help of technology.

Educational leaders also show an ongoing investment in families and communities. Principal David Nungaray, of Bonham Academy, uses Google Docs and Zoom as collaborative tools for professional learning communities. Every Monday, Principal Rick Flores at Rhodes Middle School hosts a virtual meeting with parents on topics such as family services, SAISD services, and distance learning. Alicia Rich, counselor at St. Phillips College Early College High School, uses Smore to communicate important updates with families about student university acceptances, applying for college funding, COVID-19, and community resources. 

Teachers are learning how to communicate in ways other than in-person, over the phone, and email. Google Classroom, Zoom, Remind, and other tools are now adding to the educator’s toolkit. At the same time, parents and students are learning how to access these tools. This learning does not have to end when social and physical distancing ends

However, not all schools have the same level of access to integrate technology with learning. Many school districts have created distance learning pages, but they cannot afford to distribute technology to students. Some students are working on packets with no support from teachers, while others are able to receive ongoing instruction through technology. Access to learning with technology is an equity gap. 

Texas recently passed House Bill 3 during the 86th legislature, which will provide more money to schools in more equitable ways. Blended learning to schools in low-income communities is one method Texas will use to support schools. Blended learning combines online learning with in-person teaching. Raise Your Hand Texas advocates that blended learning is needed to support 21st century skills, and 98 percent of schools they serve which incorporated blended learning have met state academic standards. 

In October 2019, TEA released a statement announcing funding for planning grants of up to $125,000 and execution grants of up to $100,000. The additional financing of tech integration is a valuable beginning for schools. Still, more funding is needed to see the longevity of these programs. The 87th legislature can be an opportunity for the state to expand funding for blended learning.

House Bill 3 introduced historic changes to school finance policy that will provide positive learning opportunities for students. Our next legislation is a moment to discuss additional advancements in education. Expansion of funding for technology integration is one such advancement. The funding could support technology purchases, repair, digital learning tools, and professional development. Blended learning can be an equitable approach to educating our youth with the resources they deserve at school and at home. 

Over the past weeks, teachers and district leaders have provided a tremendous amount of effort to support the needs of our students. It is up to the state and the federal government to match those needs. We must provide students with the 21st century skills necessary to advance their learning and empower them to take responsibility for their future.

Lebon D. James

Lebon D. James III is a doctoral student in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Previously he served as a teacher, instructional coach, and assistant principal in San Antonio.

Joel Alvarado

Joel Alvarado is a master teacher with St. Phillips College Early College High School in San Antonio. He integrates blended learning into his high school biology classroom.