Getting ready for 'school in the cloud'

For Taos students, families and teachers, the month of August usually means the end of summer and the start of back-to-school: shopping for a new lunchbox, looking for deals on primary colored markers and presharpend No. 2 pencils and labeling everything in sight with your child's name in black Sharpie.

But back-to-school looks different this year - for all of us. As schools start up in a virtual learning model, we all struggle to adapt to what a very different school year looks and feels like.

While school buildings are closed for instruction, students and teachers are meeting in the cloud. Lessons and assignments are posted and turned in digitally and students are becoming adept at Google Classroom and Canvas, Google Meets and Zoom.

At the same time, parents and guardians are also working to keep families intact as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll -- juggling jobs or joblessness, cobbling together child care plans and taking on new roles in their child's education.

Unfortunately, research shows that when instruction moves online, low-income students lose the most. Often that can be due to lack of home internet access, which literally leaves children disconnected from their learning as well as from their teachers, classmates and friends when learning goes virtual.

Taos Education Collaborative is a coalition of area businesses, organizations and schools working to build community capacity around internet access. TEC officially "launched" on July 6 and was quickly joined by early partners such as Kit Carson Cooperative, Taos Municipal Schools, area charter schools, University of New Mexico-Taos, Taos Ski Valley, Taos Entrepreneurial Network, Taos HIVE and Taos Chamber of Commerce,

While the ultimate goal would be home access for every single student in Taos County, the TEC's first goal is to create a "safety net" of 100 free internet access points around the community - and thanks to our amazing partners, we are three-quarters of the way there.

The next goal is to identify families who are currently not connected and for whom having consistent access is a matter of economic hardship. The organization has pledged to sponsor 25 families through a recent grant received through All Together New Mexico fund.

Here are some frequently asked questions from families.

How can I get ready for "school in the cloud"?

First, find a study spot in your home - somewhere quiet but also where a child can get support and where you as the adult can see their screen and check in on their work from time to time. Then, check to see that you have a dedicated computer - one that the student can access as needed for schoolwork - and that you are able to connect to the home internet with that device.

If I need help with internet access for my child's learning, what should I do?

The first step is to directly contact your child's school. All schools have someone designated to ensure student access and we are striving to work together on this. Make sure they have your name, a good contact number and your physical address (where you will need access).

What do I do if my child does not have a computer that is dedicated to their learning?

Sharing devices in one household can be tricky, especially if multiple school-aged children are trying to use one or if the adults in the home also do online work. All Taos schools are making computers and take-home devices available for their students. Be on the lookout for information on when you can pick up these devices. If you can't make that specified time, reach out to schedule an appointment for pickup.

How can I help?

If you are a business owner or belong to a church or other community organization that has free internet and are willing to allow Taos County students to use it for the purpose of completing their schoolwork, reach out to become a partner. We are also actively looking for folks willing to sponsor a Taos family's connection for one year through our "Fund a Family" program - we will match donations for up to 25 families, which doubles our collective impact.

Together, we can make continuous, connected learning a reality for all Taos students.

Elizabeth LeBlanc is a 20-year Taos resident, educator and community member. She is the director of Teaching and Learning at Taos Academy Charter School and the co-founder of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, which helps schools in New Mexico and beyond adapt to more flexible, personalized education models. Contact her at eleblanc@taosacademy.org for more information and to get involved.

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