OpinionPandemic  

I Rode the Bus for 93 Miles and 6 Hours So My Students Could Have Instructional Packets — and Food for Their Families

By Amber Rawlins | May 27, 2020

While teachers around the country are sending assignments in seconds with the click of a mouse, I rode the bus for 93 miles and six hours so my students at KIPP ENC in Halifax, North Carolina, could have instructional packets to continue their schoolwork. When I hear government officials talk about how successful remote learning is, I know they have never been to Halifax County.

This COVID-19 is awful for our students, who do not have the same connectivity or resources that so many other children do. I know students at my school and in my community are struggling daily.

Along the bus route, I would see students waiting in anticipation, waiting for us to come by. I wish I could say they were waiting only for our packets, but our delivery included food for their families, and that was the bigger draw. I know many of my students came to school sometimes just for the meals. At first, we were doing meal deliveries Monday through Friday, but as the pandemic spread, we switched to delivering packets and bulk food items for our families to lessen the amount of contact.

There is a lot of need here that often gets overlooked. Our students all qualify for free or reduced-priced school lunch, and only 50 percent of my class has access to the internet. Halifax County is a rural town where 22 percent of the people live in poverty and where over 40 percent do not have a subscription to internet services.

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We live off the paper mills and textile industry and by farming peanuts, cotton and tobacco. We’re lucky we at least have a Walmart. So, developing remote learning for 2,100 KIPP ENC students was not an equitable option.

Right before the closures, our teachers worked furiously on creating packets, but we didn’t think we were going to be closed for so long. For my class of 18 students, my team and I focused on creating three sets of packets on literacy, science and math. For reading, I printed books, like David Shannon’s A Bad Case of Stripes, on color card-stock paper and attached different reading and comprehension activities and games. For science, my team and I added passages about different animals around the world and experiments they could easily do at home without having to buy new materials. I made sure to give them problem sets that dealt with addition and place value charts so they could at least review what they had learned before.

We’ll be closed for the rest of the year now — and I am worried for my babies. Even with Zoom meetings or communicating on Facebook, it still feels like it is not enough.

I worry about my students’ social-emotional needs and making sure their families have the resources they need to survive this pandemic. I worry about their academics, and the stress of what is going with this pandemic. I speak to my students at least three to four times a week. I talk to the parents, too. Many of them ask me what they can do to keep their child on track to third grade, while others are asking where they can find supplies they need for their homes. Other students’ parents still have to work at the local hospital or paper mill plant, and some of them are even working as bus drivers for our school. They have family to help them take care of their children, so I get to talk to those parents when they get off work.

I live close to town, so my internet service is reliable. But for a good amount of my class, they only have cell service and no broadband to do their work. The students who need the most help are those who don’t have access to the internet or even a personal phone they can use to call me. I wish I could be there face to face to sit with them and explain when they have a question. We do our best to post morning message videos on Facebook for our students and families and as many instructional videos as we can because it’s at least the one medium they can access. And if they can’t get on Facebook, we text the videos directly. Another second-grade teacher at school comes to my house a few times a week (we stay at a distance) so she can post videos for her students, since her internet service is poor where she lives. We have now been able to provide Kindle Fire tablets to some students with the instructional resources and academic apps available on the tablet.

I FaceTimed one of my students the other day, and he was filled with joy and sadness. “I miss you so much! I miss school! I don’t know what I am going to do. You are not here to help me. Am I going to pass to third grade next year, or am I going to be left behind?”

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Students and parents are asking questions we don’t have the answers to, yet we have to keep them encouraged. We help parents understand what they call “the new math” over the phone or just listen to what they are going through. And many of my students call to tell me they miss me and want to be back at school.

I didn’t think the last day I sent them off on that bus would be the last day I would see them. I miss my children. I used to spend eight — sometimes even 10 — hours with them every day. I hope they are getting even more love than I could ever give them daily in class. This pandemic has made me grateful for my KIPP ENC family and how we all came together to meet the needs of students far above and beyond what we could have ever imagined we would.

This pandemic has made me grateful for the profession I have chosen because even though I can’t see them physically, or not see all of them on Zoom or Google Meet daily, they know they can depend on me because I am just a phone call away.

Amber Rawlins is a second-grade teacher at KIPP ENC Halifax Primary School in Halifax, North Carolina.

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