When she’s not logging online to teach her class of third-graders reading and writing, Jennifer Martin has been doubling as a local librarian, offering some 2,000 books to neighborhood kids and teens — all from the garage of her East Travis County home.
Martin had been growing a collection of books for her classroom at Gilbert Elementary School for the last three years, but access to that was cut off this spring when the pandemic forced schools to close. Many educators are continuing to teach virtually this fall. Del Valle Independent School District, which includes Gilbert, has opted for 100% remote learning for the first eight weeks of school.
With the nearest library miles away, Martin was worried students would fall behind with reading, so she decided to open her own.
“When students have books in their hands, and they have various choices of different types of literature to read, different genres, then they have more of a chance of connecting with that book, with realizing, ‘Wow, reading is fun,’” she said. “The more selection that you have and the easier access that you have makes a difference.”
Her idea spread through friends and online, and soon enough, former students and people she’d never met started donating books, bringing her original collection of 1,500 to 2,000. A parent of a former student offered to build shelves to line the garage. The library, geared toward kindergarten through 12th-graders, officially opened Saturday — with pandemic protocols in place. Visitors must wear masks, and only five are allowed in at once.
“It’s basically on an honor system," Martin said. “You check out two books, and then whenever you are finished, come back and check out two more.”
Del Valle, an area of eastern Travis County that sits outside Austin’s city limits, lacks many of the resources available in the city, like nearby libraries, major grocery stores and health care facilities. About 88% of students in the local school district of 11,000 are economically disadvantaged. The district often steps up to meet the needs of residents by providing meals and offering free after-school programs since there aren’t a lot of local recreational centers or day care options.
“Our school board believes that in order for our children to be successful, we have to take care of the whole child, and if that means we have to make extra calls or be involved in a few extra things, then that’s what it means,” Rebecca Birch, president of the school board, said. “They need to have access to health care and access to food, so we’ve been on those frontlines fighting so we can make sure we can do the best we can.”
When the pandemic hit, things were no different. The district quickly switched to curbside food services, getting hundreds of thousands of meals out to students during the spring and summer. Technology was another area of concern; not everyone had access to computers and Wi-Fi to connect with teachers.
“A lot of it wasn’t just an economic issue,” Birch said. “Some of it was a locale issue. Some of our district is what you would consider very rural, and it doesn’t have good connectivity there, which is why hotspots were so important.”
In a survey over the summer, 25% of families said they did not have reliable high-speed internet. So, the district’s goal for the fall was to have technology and Wi-Fi hotspots available so every student could connect.
Ana Rush, an executive director for the Del Valle ISD, said the district has been distributing hotspots to those who need them, including multiple to families who have several students and need more bandwidth. With the help of bond funding approved last November, she said, the district has also been able to get devices for all students. Students in second through 12th grades receive Chromebooks, while younger students get iPads.
“We are still delivering Chromebooks and things like that, but almost 100% of the students have received a device," she said.
Rush said more than 94% of students were in attendance during the first week of school, which started Aug. 17.
For anyone still without a hotspot, the district set up 10 buses throughout Del Valle, in parking lots of food marts or apartment complexes, that offer Wi-Fi. Families can park their cars within 150 feet of a bus to connect.
Adapting to online learning has been a challenge, Martin said. A teacher for the last 22 years, she said she misses being in the classroom but feels safer teaching from home right now. She is immuno-compromised and lives with her 74-year-old father.
“I really can’t go back,” she said. “I can’t go back into that building. It’s just not safe in my opinion.”
The Texas Education Agency has allowed school districts to offer distance learning for the first eight weeks. After that, they have to offer in-person learning for those that want it. Del Valle is working on plans to start providing some in-person learning Oct. 13.
During a virtual meeting with parents last week, Superintendent Annette Tielle shared some possibilities of what that might look like. For example, she said teachers could be teaching students in the classroom while livestreaming the lesson for students who opt to keep learning from home. Schools would screen students and staff to make sure they don’t have fevers before entering the building, and bell schedules would be alternated so students aren’t all in the hallways at the same time. Masks will be required, and desks will be 6 feet apart.
The district is asking parents to notify the administration if they want to send their students back for in-person classes later this year so it knows what to plan for. In the most recent survey, only 25% of parents said they’d choose to send their child to school.
“We are looking at purchasing cameras for teachers [to livestream]," Rush said, "and just looking at the options that we can offer for families that are not ready to send their students back to school."
She said plans for a return to in-person classes are subject to change, based on guidance from health officials and any influxes in COVID-19 cases.
While Martin doesn’t know what the rest of the semester will hold, she does plan to keep her library open for as long as it’s needed. Monday through Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, she’ll be in her garage — mask on — disinfecting recently returned books and helping readers find stories that excite them. She said she's already seen students bring their excitement about reading into the virtual classroom.
“The kids went to class on Monday, and a few different teachers told me they were so excited to show off the books they got at the library,” Martin said. “Connections are built when you’re talking and sharing about literature.”
Those interested in visiting the library can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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