AUSTIN (KXAN) — The COVID-19 pandemic has turned life upside down for an entire generation of students. And, it’s widened an educational equity gap that faced some students long before the pandemic began.

In our months of research, we found an army of people — teachers, non-profit directors, cafeteria workers and neighbors among them — standing to bridge that gap. These people are innovating, sacrificing and working tirelessly to make sure all students can continue to learn successfully during the pandemic.

Our nationwide team discovered that delivering equitable education opportunities in a crisis requires much more than providing students with a laptop and good curriculum. It requires a process — a path — that begins long before a student sits down at their desk.

Search for students

The first step on that path: making contact. When in-person learning was suspended in the spring, educators lost contact with hundreds of thousands of students across the country. Some families didn’t have phone service, internet or even a permanent home, so checking on these students required a more hands-on approach.

Teachers, principals and social workers like those in the Robla School District in Sacramento went door-to-door looking for students they weren’t able to contact by phone or email. They talked to family members and neighbors to make sure their students were safe and had what they needed to learn.

In Central Texas alone, educators lost contact with more than 37,000 students. In Leander ISD, librarian Carolyn Slavin teamed with parent Elva Franco and went door-to-door in her primarily Spanish-speaking neighborhood where internet and cell service is spotty. Slavin personally connected wireless hotspots while Franco communicated with families in Spanish to make sure their needs were met.

“Now, they are able to be in contact with their teachers,” Franco said. “They can do their work happy and knowing that even though they may not go to school, they will keep learning.”

Meals before laptops

The pandemic put critical resources like meals, social services and a safe place to learn out of reach for many students. So, once educators made contact, they had to find a way to make sure their students’ basic needs were met.

In Beaverton ISD in Oregon, 35% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and some had to stay home with older siblings when in-person education was suspended. Charity Ralls, the administrator of nutrition services for the district, said her team quickly realized packaging several days’ worth of to-go meals worked best, because it meant fewer pick-ups for families. And, providing easy reheating instructions that kids could follow at home helped make sure students were eating even if their parents were at work.

In Austin, the African-American Youth Harvest Foundation helps young boys from low-income families become kindergarten ready.

“We found out that a lot of parents are having basic needs issues like childcare and those who are underemployed or unemployed,” said Michael Lofton the organization’s President & Founder.

So, now more than ever, the foundation makes sure families have access to food, clothes, diapers and child care in addition to school supplies and laptops.

Free Wi-Fi for families

Laptops aren’t an effective teaching tool if families don’t have reliable internet access.

Across the U.S., almost 17 million children lack the high-speed home internet access needed for online learning, according to an Alliance for Excellent Education analysis published in July 2020.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill formed a special commission that’s working to remove barriers like maintaining landline telephones. And, the commission is working to incentivize companies to connect ignored customers.

After surveying families, educators in Austin ISD parked school buses fitted with hotspots in neighborhoods with high percentages of students without internet. The technology team at Suffolk Public Schools in Virginia created outdoor hotspots at their campuses, allowing students without internet to get online in the parking lots of schools.

On top of cost, rural communities often face another barrier to internet connectivity. In less-populated areas, internet service providers are often very limited or unavailable.

In Lockhart ISD, a rural district covering 300 square miles, 40% of students weren’t able to get online when the district switched to virtual learning. So the school board voted to shift $600,000 in capital expenses to create its own internet service. It built seven towers and installed hundreds of routers and signal boosters delivering free wireless to the hundreds of families that needed it.

“This is about equity,” Lockhart ISD Superintendent Mark Estrada said. “Every one of our Lockhart Lions needs to have access to the opportunities they deserve to grow and truly thrive.”

Filling gaps

Getting kids learning during a pandemic looks different for each school district, campus and student. But, each solution requires shifting resources and thinking innovatively to fill the educational gaps created by the crisis.

For Arwyn and Arianna Gonzalez in Hutto, Texas, learning right now looks like a classroom on a school bus. Their district has created a mobile special education classroom that brings their teachers to them.

For third, fourth and fifth graders in Thais Perkin’s learning pod in Austin, learning takes the form of virtual lessons accessed through district-issued laptops in Perkin’s living room with lunch at her kitchen table and recess in her backyard.

And, for middle school students in Boulder, Colorado, learning happens with hand-on experiments at home thanks to science kits given to each student using money from a national grant.

‘COVID is a marathon’

“We were, quite frankly, redesigning ourselves as we went through this,” said Byron Sanders, CEO of Dallas-based non-profit Big Thought.

Before the pandemic, Big Thought’s programs were in-person and interactive, so Sanders and his team had rethink how to serve their students this year with online and hybrid programs.

So did the leaders at non-profits across the country. Communities in Schools is a drop-out prevention organization in Austin that had to work quickly to keep the students it serves on track.

“We had to go into overdrive in terms of connecting with families quickly to stay in touch,” said Community in Schools CEO Suki Steinhauser.

Communities in Schools had to immediately fundraise via phone, email and social media to get emergency financial assistance and technology to hundreds of students who had no way to learn at home.

And, while the work they have done has provided critical help to vulnerable students, Steinhauser and the many other people stepping in to fill education equity gaps stress that the work is just beginning.

“COVID is a marathon,” Steinhauser said. “We have to continue to support our families in need in special and intensive ways.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.