Students meet in Austin churches for free, virtual learning pods during pandemic

Pass or Fail

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Rebecka Aguilar stood behind a bright-eyed student, learning over the back of the girl’s child-size chair to see what’s on the screen of her school-issued computer tablet.

“You always amaze me with your work,” Aguilar told the first grader named Anyah.

Anyah confidently pronounced words she read off the screen and then used her mouse to drag the words to the corresponding pictures. Minutes before she finished her first live Zoom class of the day with her teacher at Cedars International Academy, a public charter school in north Austin. The 6-year-old has not physically returned to the campus this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Anyah, 6, attends virtual class while at Community Pods (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Each day her mom drops her and her sister, Aria, off at the El Shaddai Church on Ed Bluestein Boulevard, where teachers with Community Pods stand ready to help facilitate their virtual learning, provide breakfast, lunch and snacks and offer activities once their virtual school day ends.

The program was launched quickly by the social impact engine Notley. It’s a huge help to families who are either working from home or going into work and cannot simultaneously keep children on task with their virtual school.

As Aguilar attested, guiding students’ remote learning can be a full-time job.

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Teachers at Community Pods keep up with virtual Zoom schedules (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“It requires a lot of attention,” said Aguilar, who was one of two teachers in a classroom of five students, divided by plexiglass.

Several sheets of colored paper taped up on the white board, one for every student, contained their daily schedules complete with a list of times and Zoom calls with teachers, which change depending on the day.

Three of the students in the room attend Ortega Elementary School in east Austin.

Making sure money isn’t a barrier

Other parents across Austin who drop their children off at similar programs pay a lot of money. One program in the affluent Tarrytown neighborhood is charging parents about $1,300 a month to provide a similar service.

Community Pods is free to any family who needs it — no questions asked — and was created to give low income families the same opportunities as those who can afford to pay.

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Community Pods classroom at El Shaddai Church (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Aguilar, a single mother of three, said she feels fulfilled by helping families just like hers.

“My children are grown now, and I could have never done it without the help and the support of many people in my community and my circle,” Aguilar said.

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El Shaddai Church on Ed Bluestein is volunteering it’s classroom space to Community Pods (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

In addition to El Shaddai, Community Pods is set up at the For the City Center in the St. John’s neighborhood. Both churches are donating their space and hosted a total of about 75 children in the early stages when schools were only offering virtual learning.

The numbers have dropped to about 45 children now.

Notley donated the first $50,000 to get the program up and running, and counts on corporate partners and individual donors to keep it going.

Notley also brings in other non-profits to carry out the plan on the ground. For example, meals are provided by the Central Texas Food Bank.

Making sure students can get there

One of the biggest challenges for growing the program has been transportation. Aguilar said some parents who typically rely on school buses to get their children to and from school, don’t have a way to get to either church location.

Notley recently met with Austin Independent School District, Capitol Metro and Uber to try to come up with a solution.

Uber agreed to offer free vouchers for families to get their children to the church and the parents to work, and then take everyone home at the end of the day.

Making sure it’s working

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Child attending virtual class from Ortega Elementary while at Community Pods (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Notley’s goal is to provide 100 children access to WiFi, tutoring, meals and transportation for the entire school year. The non-profit is still gathering information about the families it’s working with to get data on how well the pilot program is working. But, for those who are plugged in, it’s clear learning is happening.

Anyah told KXAN reporter Erin Cargile about the dinosaur book her class read together on Zoom that morning, and a picture she drew to illustrate the story.

“That’s when he’s packing up his bag,” Anyah said, pointing to her artwork. “That’s when he’s under his blanket because he’s scared.”

She said she likes the learning pod because her teachers help her not get sick.

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Anyah, 6, works on school work at Community Pods (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Notley said a third church is ready to open its doors if more families need it.

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.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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