4Points AcademyAbromeAcademy of Thought and IndustryACE AcademyActon AcademyActon Academy Southwest AustinActon Academy West AustinAscent: An Acton AcademyAustin Rising SchoolBloom PreschoolBridges Academy AustinClearview Sudbury SchoolcoronavirusCOVID-19Earth Native Wilderness SchoolEducation in EmergenciesEIEFusion AcademyGriffin SchoolGrowing Curiosity Community SchoolHuntington-Surrey SchoolInternational School of TexasLa TribuLake Travis STEM AcademyParkside Community Schoolsocial-emotional learningWild Life Forest PreschoolWonderWellWoodland Schoolhouse

Social-emotional learning during the COVID crisis: Lessons from Austin’s alternative schools

Faster transitions to distance learning ease anxiety

For some schools, moving out of a physical space and into distance learning has happened quickly. We discovered in our survey that because they are smaller and more nimble, most of the 35 schools have been able to adapt easily to the new circumstances. 

Parents and students at Austin’s Academy of Thought and Industry and 4Points Academy reportedly have been surprised and pleased at the ease of the transition. The speed of the transition in small alternative schools has been a big part of limiting anxiety for students—an anxiety kids in larger school systems are still dealing with, as the machinery of transitioning to online learning for thousands of students grinds slowly and fitfully forward.

Many of the schools in our survey had some component of online learning available before the pandemic arrived. As Amanda Garret of Fusion Academy notes, her school already offered virtual classes for students who had to travel or were sick. “Most teachers had already experienced teaching this way and also many students, so it was a super easy transition for us!” 

In our community younger students seem to have embraced technology just as readily as older kids. Certified reading specialist Alexandra Eliot, founder of Bridges Academy Austin, which will be opening in Austin in the fall, says elementary students often adapt well to the Zoom platform. “In fact, some students pay attention better to tutoring when it is done virtually. [To help them,] I can increase the font size in their reading and point with my mouse.” 

It’s important to note one key issue in terms of implementing distance learning: It’s clear from the evidence in the surveys that the relative lack of economic inequality among the students at Austin’s alternative schools has made a big difference. Most of the students already have the technology they need; they and their parents are able to use the technology; and in most cases, they have at least one parent working from home who is able to support their learning and emotional health. For kids of essential workers, those experiencing financial and food insecurity, or without the essential technology, this transition looks very different and is inherently more difficult emotionally and socially.

“We met in our gardens”

Finding time for nature and for quiet mindfulness are two aspects of emotional and social wellness that are often linked, and both came up in the survey. 

Integrating time outside in nature is something parents and kids can easily forget now that we spend so much time in front of our screens. In keeping with their core mission, Earth Native Wilderness School encourages all kids to get outside and do some exploration and play. “Our Wild Life Forest Preschool has been producing some really amazing content for kids to do at home,” says Earth Native’s executive director, Dave Scott. “Seeing how excited the kids are to get on with their teachers and tackle their at-home nature challenges has been very inspiring.”

Mary Belton of Bloom Preschool said that her students “have been excited to share their gardens, so we met in our gardens one day to share what we are all growing. We also had lots of fun painting rocks together!” And Woodland Schoolhouse’s Nicole Haladyna uses Facebook as a gathering point for sharing songs, stories, updates on class pets, and nature lessons based on the trails near the school—including identifying poison ivy!

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