AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new public-private partnership in Austin is addressing education disparities highlighted by the pandemic in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion says he saw a direct correlation between neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic and the schools most impacted by the coronavirus. He’s helping lead an innovative task force being developed to provide Title I schools in Austin with the help and resources they need for a safe learning environment.

A student in an Austin ISD classroom (KXAN Photo)
A student in an Austin ISD classroom (KXAN Photo)

“It is important for us to focus on the kids that historically have been the last in line and to think about what the potential issues are and then to start to bring in community contributors to put the resources together that we can,” Travillion said.

East Austin has a large minority population and many people who work essential jobs and live in multi-generational households. Health leaders say that all contributes to some of the highest positivity rates for COVID-19 citywide, in areas where people can’t afford to stay home and must send their kids to school. Those are often Title I schools, which help meet the needs of students from low-income families.

“It’s where we get meals. That’s where we get knowledge. That’s where our friends are. That’s where we — where we have other people that care about us,” Travillion said. “So our goal is to make sure that we take those places and we make them safe.”

‘We have to put people first, and families’

Travillion, who represents the eastern part of Travis County, is working with health officials, non-profits and advocacy groups to put together a Title I task force, pulling in experts and resources needed to make low-income schools safer for students and staff during the pandemic.

The task force has begun with a pilot focusing on two Title I elementary schools in east Austin, Barbara Jordan Elementary School and T.A. Brown Elementary School.

It will deviate from the traditional one-size-fits-all approach many school boards take when funding schools, according to said Janis Bookout, one of the organizers of Community Resilience Trust, a group formed during the pandemic to help make Austin more equitable.

“We’re going to really rely on the school to help illuminate that for us, to tell us where we can be supportive,” Bookout said.

Bookout is helping lead the project. She and other advocates, like those at non-profit Austin Voices for Education and Youth, will work closely with principals, teachers and even parents to come up with a tailored response for each school, keeping each student’s needs in mind.

“In order for it to be effective, we have to listen to people, and we have to put people first and families,” Bookout said.

“We’ve been at this many months,” Austin Voices for Education and Youth Executive Director Allen Weeks said of pandemic-style learning, “And these individual schools have seen what works what doesn’t work.”

Weeks explains, “When everybody together says ‘We could use “X,” this is what we need right now to do better for our kids,’ well, they’re going to have access to folks who say, ‘OK, let’s go get that and bring that into this campus and help them do better.'”

Task force goals

Providing mental health resources is a big part of the plan, bringing in counselors and others who can help kids traumatized by the pandemic.

“What happens when a 6 year old who’s used to seeing his teacher in normal clothes without a mask sees them with their hair covered, sees them with a mask, maybe some plastic covering over their head and a gown with their shoes covered?” Travillion asked rhetorically.

One of the goals is to bring mental health help and support to students at the schools
One of the goals is to bring mental health help and support to students at the schools

The task force is considering approaches like working with Integral Care to bring in extra counselors, and even bringing in students working to become counselors, in order to bring in mental health resources at no extra cost to schools.

The task force will also provide proper PPE for anyone interacting with students and implement rapid COVID-19 testing on campuses.

The group is already partnering with local health institutes, and it has requested leftover supplies like coronavirus tests that the county’s health department has in surplus.

“Then, we could raise the dollars that are necessary to get the rest,” Travillion explained.

The task force will also perform “risk assessments” on each school and determine individualized solutions for issues that don’t align with CDC guidelines, like poor ventilation or lack of space to distance.

After members of the task force feel they’ve been successful in helping the two pilot schools, the effort will expand to other low-income schools in Austin sometime next semester.

“This will be a work in progress all the way through the pandemic until it’s over,” Bookout said.

Bookout and the rest of the task force’s members say they realize it’s a complex project that takes time and money. The group is still working to source both public and private funding so it can expand to other schools.

Beyond the pandemic

The advocates say the model they create will be useful in schools in low socioeconomic areas, even after a vaccine is available and schools return to normal.

“There are still children that go to bed hungry every night. We still have to work out transit solutions,” Travillion said, adding that many of the communities the project will focus on lack equal access to food and health care.

“Where we go from there is to use the lessons that we’ve learned and leverage those, that ground taken, to help offset those inequities moving forward,” Bookout said.

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.