Hurricane Harvey Shuttered Her School, But Not Her Teaching

By Sarah Schwartz — September 15, 2017 5 min read
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Shanna Lumpkin was getting ready to start the school year when her district shut down, in preparation for Hurricane Harvey.

So Lumpkin, a second grade teacher at Groves Elementary in the Humble Independent School District in Texas, decided to improvise. If her students couldn’t come into class, she would reach them on the Internet, using social media and ed-tech tools to contact families and continue instruction.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have forced school closures in communities across Texas, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. As Education Week has reported over the past week, districts are turning to social media and ed tech to keep in touch with students and families and deliver updates with crucial information—from school schedules to hurricane safety tips to academic lessons.

At the same time, individual teachers are reaching out to their students, using ed-tech tools designed for classroom communication and collaboration to check on their students’ safety and send messages of support.

As soon as Lumpkin knew that Groves’ first day of school would be canceled, she sent out a message to parents of her students via ClassDojo. The app, a behavior management tool for the classroom, also allows teachers to share photos, videos, and blog posts with parents.

As she waited out the storm at home over the weekend and into Monday, she saw that Todd Nesloney, a Texas principal who goes by the Twitter handle @TechNinjaTodd, had posted a Facebook Live video for his students.

Lumpkin had never used Facebook Live in her classroom. But Nesloney’s work with the platform made her think that with so many students and families trapped inside their houses, Facebook might be the easiest way to reach them.

She put makeup on for the first time in four days, picked up a book, and turned on the camera on her phone.

She read a story she had been planning to read on the first day of school: What Do You Do With a Problem? by Kobi Yamada. “I mean, what better book could you read?” said Lumpkin. “It starts off with something like, ‘I had a problem. I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t want it, but it was there.’”

Lumpkin read a story to her students every day for the 10 days Groves Elementary was out of school. She wrote updates to her students using ClassDojo and sent students login information for a math game program she planned to use in class.

She also invited students to complete the back-to-school assignment she had prepared before Harvey struck her community: They were supposed to record short getting-to-know you videos on Flipgrid, a video recording tool for classrooms.

The point wasn’t to give students assignments just for the sake of giving them schoolwork, the educator recalled.

“It wasn’t a ‘Hey, this is Mrs. Lumpkin, we’re in a storm; I want you to make sure you’re reading and doing your math homework.’ It was more of a ‘Hey, here’s some normal for you.’”

She knew schoolwork wouldn’t be a priority for all of her students, especially those who had to evacuate their homes.

“The kids, we try to keep them as protected as possible, but there’s just no protecting these kids. I had one little boy in my class whose entire home was flooded.”

She reached out to him, she said, with messages of encouragement and support, telling him, “‘We’re going to get back to school soon, and we’re going to high five and give hugs.’”

The hurricane upended Lumpkin’s family, too. Three days into the storm, Lumpkin’s mother’s house flooded. She spent her days demo-ing drywall and sifting through bags of water-damaged clothes and old photographs. At night, she would come home, shower, and read a book to her students over Facebook Live.

“It helped me, mentally, to connect and stay thinking forward and thinking positively,” she said, about how, “this sucks right now, but it’s going to get better,” she said.

The storms led other educators to forge connections with their communities, too.

The weekend before Irma made landfall in Florida, Heather Van Osten, a 3rd grade teacher at Veterans Memorial Elementary in the Collier County school district, reached out to families on every platform she could.

She sent emails to her students’ parents and messages through Remind, a school group messaging app. She retweeted school closure information from the district, hoping that parents would see that if they happened to scroll through their feeds.

She also created a Flipgrid page where students could post video updates before the storm arrived, letting their classmates know that they were safe and sharing where they planned to take shelter.

Van Osten thought social media and app-based communication would be her best bet for reaching families. “Most parents will have their phone on them,” she said, “and will charge it through the car charger or a generator.”

Three of her students replied to her on Flipgrid before Irma touched down in the state. Van Osten posted videos of her own to the platform, updating her students as she moved from her home in Fort Myers to a storm shelter, and later a hotel room in Orlando.

But since the storm hit, she hasn’t heard anything from her students or their families. “The parents have a lot more things to worry about—like where they’re sleeping, where their food is, when is the power coming on,” she said.

“They’re not worried about posting a message to let [teachers] know they’re OK. They’re worried about being OK.”

Van Osten and her family returned home Tuesday from Orlando. Her husband waited in a two-hour line for a generator, so she has power at home and has been able to charge her phone. But she says she knows that many of her students may be in areas without power, or even without cell service.

“I’m hoping they’re fine,” she said. “I’m hoping they’re just busy, and [contacting me] is not what they’re thinking about.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.