When students in J322 (Reporting Public Issues) transitioned to online learning, one student expressed concern that she had planned to write the best piece of her college career this semester and it would no longer be possible by reporting remotely. Attitudes quickly changed to, “We’ve got this!” And they did. On the final day, that student said she did submit the finest piece – so far – of her college career. The J322 series of articles showcases students' work during this unique moment in history.
Yellow school bus No. 3 rumbles down the Greenway subdivision with only one passenger aboard as the tattered gray seats remain desolate. The children who once sat there peek out the blinds of their homes, waiting for the bus to stop not so they can board, but so they can pick up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“I think even though we come from a small town, we are so used to being in such crazy times that we come together,” said Amy Picard, school bus driver.
Nestled deep in Southeast Texas along the swampy Sabine River where the alligators roam, is the city of Orange. This small town of about 18,484 people, is no stranger to overcoming obstacles as it has recovered from hurricanes and floods on more than one occasion. However, adapting to online learning in the midst of a pandemic has created unique challenges for the Little Cypress-Mauriceville School District, such as the need to deliver meals to students. According to the Texas Education Agency, 38% of the students are economically disadvantaged.
“If we were in Katy, Round Rock or someplace with a much lower poverty rate, we would be able to go to strictly online learning,” said Michael Ridout, Little Cypress Intermediate principal. “But we have higher poverty rates in that we're a Title I school, which speaks to our percentage of families below the poverty line.”
Because of the district’s funding difficulties, its 3,166 students will not receive any devices to take home for their online classes.
“Unfortunately, we're a district that struggles financially,” said Ridout. “I envy the districts that are able to give every kid a Chromebook and a hotspot, so they can overcome that deficiency for the kids. We just don't have the resources to do that.”
Because LC-M is unable to be strictly online, teachers are still preparing paperwork for their students. Parents can pick up work from the school during scheduled hours but are able to drop it off in bins outside the schools at any time.
On the first collection day, Ridout did not feel comfortable asking his staff to collect things from people out of their cars. He did not want to put his teachers at increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.
“I was what I call the contaminated person,” Ridout said. “I had on gloves and a mask. I was the only one that was receiving work and library books from these families as they drove up. It was a weird sensation because I was choosing to be the person that is exposing myself to the virus.”
Being a rural town, the poor broadband connection has been an issue for families trying to complete their classes online in a timely manner.
“The internet access hasn't been the greatest, we will get started on something and then the computer will say that it's offline,” said Kara Lacouture, parent of two students in the district. “Something that should take maybe 30 minutes ends up taking us closer to an hour and a half because we have to go connect and reconnect.”
At two of the campuses, families can drive up to the front of the school buildings to connect to the internet daily. However, while working in the parking lot, students are still isolated and not likely to see their teachers.
Angie Perry is a fourth-grade teacher that students will not see while connected to the parking lot internet, as her new reality has become wearing Halloween pajama pants and a messy bun while working in a makeshift home office with Easter decorations scattered among her space. She has had to learn about many online programs quickly and spends numerous nights on the phone with parents until 11 p.m.
“You don't know if the kids are getting what they need,” Perry said. “You want the kids to learn, but it needs to be their work, not the parents work. That has been challenging because we're still trying to review and teach them, but there's some people that don't have the technology that they need.”
However, Perry is also balancing being a parent herself while sharing the one laptop in the home with her seventh-grade daughter. She has found herself having to respond to her students’ assignments on Microsoft Teams from her cell phone.
Senior Ashley Umbenhaur faced the same problem as she had to share a single laptop with her mom who was also taking online accounting classes at Lamar State College-Orange.
“There's no way we could share, she needed the computer when I need it,” Umbenhaur said. “It was just not working, so she bought me a laptop as an early graduation present.”
The district decided to no longer take numerical grades for junior high school and below the remainder of the year. Those students will be given a P for progress or an NP for no progress. Students will receive a P as long as they are trying to turn in assignments either in person or online.
The high school is continuing to give numeric grades. Seniors are on their final stretch to receive class ranks and GPA reports.
“It just feels different knowing when I wake up that I should be sitting in a classroom talking to my friends but I'm sitting on the computer trying to teach myself,” said Umbenhaur.
Buffy Knight, the director of special education, has had to hand-deliver materials to families with children of special needs since transitioning to online. The Texas Academic Performance Report states that 12.4% of the students enrolled in the district are a part of the special education program.
“That's a very unique population of students with some very unique and many times intense needs for parents,” said Knight. “They may not feel equipped to educate the children.”
Some of these families only have a cell phone as their internet provider and take it with them to work while leaving the child at home. When that happens, these kids with necessary accommodations for their individualized education plans are incapable of completing their work.
“Parents are leaving them with older brothers and sisters,” said Knight. “Students with special needs and disabilities might be more of a burden that the parent needs to manage as opposed to the older brother and sister.”
The district cannot depend on families having reliable transportation to come pick up breakfast and lunch from the school. LC-M has had to go the extra mile to ensure food is being put on the table for their children.
Three days a week, cafeteria workers are making meals for the kids and the transportation employees are driving them on their typical routes. Even teachers, paraprofessionals and librarians have stepped up to help prepare the meals.
“I love delivering lunches because it's given me the opportunity to not only give back to the community, but given me the opportunity to bless them,” said Picard.
To aid families without vehicles, some of the bus drivers also deliver schoolwork to students along with their meals.
Picard said her students are excited when the bus drivers stop by their homes, they even try to jump on and give hugs to show their love.
“When you see the kids and they say, ‘here comes the bus driver,’ their eyes just light up because they haven’t been in contact with anybody,” Picard said.
Picard makes an extra-special stop on her route while delivering meals to over 100 students. An older widowed woman on the route waits at the door for the bus to come because Picard is the only person who has been dropping by to visit. She loves to drink chocolate milk with the lunch that she is given.
The woman loves social interaction and never fails to make Picard smile. One day, the woman was on the brink of tears as she thought the bus was not coming.
“I'm not going to turn away someone that wants something, because that's just not what God wanted,” said Picard. “Sometimes it's the little things that touch people in the way that you didn't think that you could touch them.”