After Harvey’s Chaos, Tech Tools Provide Key Connection to Schools

Houston—Hurricane Harvey has faded from front-page newspaper headlines and the top of cable news, but for thousands of families, the chaos and dislocation are still very much top of mind.

Luckily, some of them have been able to use technology to fill some basic needs in education and communication.

Uma Dama, whose Sugarland, TX, home was flooded from the storm, says she, her husband, and two children are living with friends while their home is repaired. They lost daughter Anjali’s laptop in the flooding but a donation helped plug that hole. “We don’t have a lot of things right now, but at least I could sit them in the corner and they could do their homework,” Dama says.

The Texas Education Agency estimates that around 1.4 million students attend schools damaged in some part by Harvey; some schools still have not reopened, and many homes are still uninhabitable.

During hurricanes or other disasters, families scramble to pack up important items—family photos, important documents, and the like—but everyday electronics items sometimes get left behind. While FEMA, the Red Cross, and other large organizations are providing large-scale relief to the millions affected by Harvey, individual families are also getting help from ad hoc donations made by companies like Carfax, which donated a batch of Chromebooks in Houston. The laptops, along with restored connections to Wi-Fi and social media, are providing displaced families in the Houston area a crucial lifeline to the outside world and a small sense of normality.

To address older students, like those in college who are affected by Harvey, a group made up of Austin edtech startup Civitas Learning, Austin Community College, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and others has turned to crowdfunding, which has raised about $50,000 to provide grants that cover emergency needs, from replacement medicine to Uber gift cards for a student whose car was flooded. The idea is to help these students, even in small ways, deal with the disruption created by the storm so they will stay in school.

Mark Milliron, Civitas’ co-founder says about 500,000 college students were affected by Harvey, and many of them were already considered to be vulnerable to dropping out, such as those who are first in their families to attend college. He says the crowdfunding campaign dovetails with the edtech startup’s mission, which is to use data analytics tools to help provide support to those at-risk students.

“We’ve found that helping them overcome life and logistics helps them stay on the path,” Milliron says. “And [Harvey] is one hell of a life logistic.”

As schools around the region began to open around mid-September, two weeks after Harvey roared through, Elkins High School 11th grader Sowbhasri Srinivas says, she was out of sorts, bouncing with her family from house to house until they could find somewhere to live while their house is renovated, and having trouble keeping up with homework because her laptop was destroyed in the flooding.

“I had no way of contacting [classmates and teachers], and no access to the Internet,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It seemed crazy! … I didn’t get all the notifications my teachers would send out online. I wasn’t able to text my friends to help me with certain subjects.”

But her family, like the Damas, received a laptop, a gift that the families say has helped them feel just a little bit less dislocated, especially as the rest of the world has moved on from the storms. “Technology is more than just an educational tool,” says Shanna Lumpkin, a second-grade teacher in the Humble Independent School District near Houston.

Lumpkin lived in Jackson, MS, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast in 2005. Her brother was a student at Tulane University. “I remember we could barely get in touch with anyone for weeks,” she says. “It was just so much better for your soul if you could reach out.”

Remembering that, she decided she wanted to communicate with her current students after Harvey. Compared to twelve years earlier, she had stronger Wi-Fi networks and cell connections, and newer edtech tools like Class Dojo and FlipGrid, to stay in touch. On what was supposed to be the first day of school on Sept. 2, Lumpkin says she used Facebook Live to read to her students a storybook called “What Do You Do With a Problem?” by Kobi Yamada.

“I read a story every single day until we got back to school,” she says. In addition to story time, Lumpkin says she encouraged children to use FlipGrid to compose videos introducing themselves to their classmates. “I approved the videos that they shared, but they started reading stories to me,” Lumpkin says.

The kids were returning the favor, it turns out. While Lumpkin’s home was not damaged, her mother’s was flooded and required days of mucking out. When she got home at night, holding story time over Facebook Live and seeing her kids’ videos helped calm some of the chaos in her own family’s lives.

“This is going to get better,” she says.

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