#5: Responding To A Crisis — Julie Lause, Principal of Harriet Tubman Charter School — A Series Documenting How New Orleans Educators and Schools Are Reacting To COVID-19

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This is the fifth in a series of interviews and Q&As conducted by the Cowen Institute with New Orleans educators to highlight how schools are managing with the current COVID-19 outbreak.

This is an edited Q&A email exchange with Julie Lause, Principal of Harriet Tubman Charter School.

Cowen Institute: How are you communicating with students and families since school closures began?

Lause: On the Montessori campus, homeroom teachers are calling their classes one or two times a week to check in and help with classwork. On the Blue Campus, support staff are calling every family once a week, and academic teachers are responding to homework calls nightly. Phone calls are our major way to stay in touch with families on an individual basis, and a lot of times this is support for parents in handling the difficulties of the situation.

How often are you reaching out to them?

All students are getting calls weekly, and in some cases, our social workers and counselors are reaching out more frequently to families who need more support.

What supports and assistance are you providing to students and families currently?

We’re serving about 5,000 meals a week at our Blue Building Campus, have handed out 250 computers over the last four weeks, and are providing counseling services over the phone to kids who typically receive counseling in our school.

As soon as hotspots become available, we will distribute those along with more computers. We believe we can get most of our campus online when we have hotspots distributed.

All staff are working from 10–2 each day, and we are trying to make sure that we are meeting the needs of families as well as continuing as much of the regular functioning of the school as possible. Meetings over Zoom are a regular part of every staff member’s day, and immediate needs for families in crisis are one of the main action items we discuss.

What type of school work are students completing while at home?

Our final day of school, we sent home packets with students containing four weeks worth of work. Teachers selected standards that were high-value and required multiple days of practice, and we have supplemented those four weeks worth of packet work with weekly lessons.

The situation that most of our schools in New Orleans face is that most of our students don’t have access to a computer or wireless internet at home. All of our lessons are broadcast over Instagram TV since most students DO have access to a phone with Instagram. Teachers are broadcasting one main lesson each week: Mondays are math, Tuesdays are social studies, Wednesdays are ELA, and Thursdays are science. On Friday, our enrichment team provides a lesson in art, music, or PE.

Each lesson connects to the packet work we sent home, and has corresponding lessons on Google Classroom for kids who can access that. Work for all lessons is “due” at the end of the week.

Though we don’t have a way to track individual student participation, I think it’s highly likely that the 95 individual viewers of our 4th grade math class, for example, are probably 4th graders watching their math teacher. Our participation, in terms of views, is high.

So is engagement in our remote spirit week, student and teacher shoutouts, participation in our Tubman Love Challenge (where everyone was challenged to make an origami heart to represent Tubman’s value of courage), and views of our teachers reading elementary picture books. Through Instagram, we’re able to announce high school placement news, celebrate birthdays, highlight students who are working hard at home, and remember fond memories of when we were all together.

You can follow along at @tubmanmontessori and @harriettubmancharter.

How will remote student work be assessed (if at all)?

We don’t believe it’s fair to assess student work at this time because we don’t have a way to provide equal access to our resources and instruction. That said, teachers are giving feedback on lessons and engaging with students who turn work in on Google Classroom. When we have all of our kids reliably on the internet, we could possibly move to assess student work.

How are you planning for the possibility that schools are closed for the rest of the year?

Our first four weeks of content were planned out, sent home, and lessons have been delivered. We are now making the second packet available next week with four more weeks of content that will take us to the end of the year.

What are you hearing from families right now that are their biggest challenges or needs?

Families are struggling with basic needs related to a lack of transportation, access to the internet, access to food, and language services. Our school provides three meals and a snack every day for 1000 kids, and though we are very busy handing out meals each week, it doesn’t replace the level of nutrition that we normally provide. In addition, some families live far enough away without transportation that getting to a site to get food is impossible.

And every family is struggling with the demands of childcare, keeping their family safe, and supporting learning.

Coronavirus has been a stressful experience for many people in the New Orleans community. People are concerned about the health of their loved ones and the financial security of their families. Is there anything that schools can do to provide emotional support to students and families?

There is something significant about being connected to a community. Tubman is a neighborhood school mostly serving Algiers students. Outside of the basic needs we can provide for food and learning, keeping everyone connected over social media is one of our most significant functions. Kids can’t talk to each other, but they can see each other’s pictures over Instagram through our school accounts. They can’t be at school but they can watch their teacher’s video and feel the love and connection through the screen. Staff too are connecting in book clubs, our weekly all-staff dance party, workout Zoom sessions, and of course- meetings!

We are all very sad to be apart and to have the important work of teaching and learning be interrupted. We’re all doing our best until we can be together again when it’s safe.

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The mission of the Cowen Institute is to advance public education and youth success in New Orleans and beyond.

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