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Rushing to Fill the Gaps Coronavirus Has Widened

As the pandemic intensifies inequities in education and across our already fragile safety nets, social entrepreneurs and nonprofits are feeling the urgency to find solutions.

By Laura Zingg

April 6, 2020

A student working on schoolwork.

When Alejandro Gibes de Gac (Greater Philadelphia ‘09) scrolls through his Instagram feed, he sees friends who are doing their best to keep their kids’ education going under the current circumstances. They are running science experiments, assisting with calculus homework, and teaching their children how to play chess. But he knows that’s not the reality for every family. For many low-income families, parents are struggling to make ends meet and may be required to work outside of the home in essential jobs. They may not be able to afford child care or have access to resources to continue virtual learning at home.

“With every passing hour, kids are falling further and further behind in their learning and that eats at me,” Alejandro says. “I feel like if we don't find a way to move swiftly to equip low-income parents to support learning at home on a massive scale, then almost inevitably the achievement gap is going to widen for a whole generation of kids.”

After teaching in Philadelphia, Alejandro founded Springboard Collaborative in 2011, a nonprofit with a mission to close the literacy gap among students from low-income backgrounds. The organization partners with schools and families to help students in Pre-K through third grade make significant gains in their reading abilities through resources, coaching, and a variety of year-round programs to support students' learning outside of school hours.

As schools around the country have closed in response to the pandemic, Alejandro says his organization felt the urgency to keep kids on track with reading and moved to quickly create a virtual version of its in-person program that is accessible for everyone. Families, teachers, and school leaders can access a suite of proven literacy development resources available for free, including coaching plans, videos, e-books, and activities. Springboard Collaborative also began offering virtual town halls and webinars for teachers and weekly Facebook live coaching sessions for parents. 

“Never in the modern history of the education system has the importance of family engagement been more apparent,” Alejandro says. “We feel an obligation and a sense of duty to rise to the occasion.”

A Springboard Collaborative teacher coaches a parent and child as they read together. Families are now able to participate in an online version of the program so students can continue building their literacy skills while schools are closed.

As families everywhere struggle to adapt to distance learning, taking on the role of the teacher can feel particularly daunting for parents with limited time at home and less access to resources and support. For some parents, it’s a question of how to make the best use of the 20 or 30 minutes they do have. The free virtual coaching program that Springboard Collaborative provides to parents includes a six-week plan that breaks down literacy goals into bite-sized weekly and daily objectives and can be used with any reading material. Parents can also get individualized support via text through a free app.

“We want to try to cut through the noise with a clear methodology for what parents can be doing day in and day out, one foot after the other to support our kids learning at home,” Alejandro says. “Parents still want to know that amidst the turmoil, they're doing right by their kid.”

Ventures Offering Additional Support

Like Alejandro, alumni entrepreneurs from across Teach For America’s network are worried about what the pandemic means for students who may not have access to the support and resources to successfully transition to remote learning from home. 

Here is just a very small sampling of the many alumni-driven social ventures that are offering additional free services to ensure that schools can stay in close contact with families and students can continue learning at home.

  • Classkick - This app allows teachers to assign work, see what students are working on, and provide individualized, real-time feedback. The company, which includes CEO Andrew Rowland (Chicago-Northwest Indiana '08), Director of Operations Cailie Ryan (Chicago-Northwest Indiana ‘11) and Senior Software Engineer Jeff Plourd (Las Vegas ‘12), is offering free access to its pro account for schools that closed because of the coronavirus and have a demonstrated need for support.
  • Kinvolved - This two-way communication platform from co-founders Miriam Altman (New York ‘08) and Alexandra Meis allows schools to streamline communication with students and families and send messages in over 80 languages. The organization is providing the KiNVO™ software for free for the remainder of the school year to a limited number of school partners looking for support communicating with families remotely.
  • CommonLit - Founded by Michelle Brown (Greater Delta ‘09), CommonLit offers over 2,000 high-quality free reading passages for grades 3-12, paired with rigorous assessments. The organization is also providing free virtual training and digital resource packs to support teachers with contingency plans.
  • Positive Physics - An award-winning online platform designed for physics learners of any background, founded by Jack Replinger (Memphis ‘07) and Anthony Fizer. Teachers can sign up for free through July 2020 due to Coronavirus school closures.
  • Leaders in Training - Erica Mosca (Las Vegas ‘08) is the founder and executive director of Leaders in Training, a Las Vegas-based nonprofit that provides leadership and college readiness programs for first-generation college students. In addition to delivering laptops, food, and essentials to students’ homes, the organization is opening up its virtual college readiness program to anyone.
  • Caribu - Founded by Maxeme Tuchman (Miami-Dade ‘04) and Alvaro Sabido, this video calling platform allows family members to virtually connect to read stories, color, and play games when they can’t be together in the same place. Through a partnership with AT&T, the platform will be available to families free of cost, through May 24, 2020.

Launching New Ventures to Meet Critical Needs

The pandemic has not only exposed inequities across schools but across our social safety nets as well. And alumni entrepreneurs are responding by finding ways to offer extra support to try and prevent gaps from widening in educationas well as within their broader communities.

Shiroy Aspandiar (Houston ‘10) is the COO of Ladder, a company focused on creating upward mobility by helping job-seekers gain employment in the healthcare field. Seeing the devastating effect of COVID-19 on the economy as people file for unemployment in record numbers, Shiroy and his co-founders, Athena Kan and Brandon Wang were concerned that people will miss out on life-saving benefits because the rules are so complex. They recently launched a simple unemployment portal to help people understand the benefits they may be eligible to receive through unemployment and the recently passed CARES Act. 

Sara Watson (Houston ‘15) saw a way to address two community-wide problems at oncethe economic trouble small businesses and restaurants are facing and the needs of healthcare workers fighting the pandemic. In addition to teaching special education full time, she’s helping to lead Feed the Front Line, a newly launched organization that takes public donations to purchase meals from local restaurants and provides the food to healthcare workers in Houston and Dallas.

Alexis Baranoff (right) and her grandmother (left) launched a service to connect families with seniors to help communities feel less isolated while everyone practices social-distancing.

For Alexis Baranoff (Dallas-Fort Worth ‘17), seeing the impact of social distancing on vulnerable elderly populations is what drove her to launch her new venture.

Alexis moved to Las Vegas a few months ago to be closer to her family before starting medical school. Not long after, the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic set in. Visiting her family was off-limits, and she could no longer see her grandmother, who lives alone.

After talking on the phone, Alexis’s grandmother shared that a lot of seniors are feeling anxious and isolated during this time, especially when they are cut-off from visits from friends and family.

“We were thinking about a lot of people who don't have people in their life who are dedicated to making sure they're okay,” Alexis says.

That conversation spurred Alexis to launch Support a Senior Las Vegas in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The program connects seniors who are living in nursing homes and assisted living residences with local Las Vegas families through phone and video communication.

Individuals and seniors can sign-up on the organization’s website. Then Alexis and her grandmother do the behind-the-scenes matchmaking work to set up the calls.

While Alexis only recently launched the program, a few dozen people have already signed up. Their first few calls were touching.

“One of the seniors reported that he talked to a 5-year-oldhe hasn't talked to a child in 20 years,” Alexis says. “We’re seeing really young people connect with the older generation. So it's a really beautiful kind of mix right now.”

“Our hope is that after all of this ends and we return to some sense of normalcy, that people who we connected during this time can meet up and see each other.”

We know there are so many more examples of social ventures and startups that are doing great things for kids and communities most impacted by the pandemic. How is your organization responding? Share on Twitter and tag us @teachforamerica.

Visit our COVID-19 resource hub to find resources for transitioning to online learning, advocating for students’ needs, and connecting with others.