The resilience of AVANCE staff during the COVID-19 pandemic

We approached those first days of March just like others across the country: closely monitoring news of the emerging novel coronavirus outbreak. Following the guidance of public health experts and local officials, we began developing contingency plans, but the situation deteriorated so rapidly that we still found ourselves in uncharted territory. While there were many unknowns, we knew that in a time of crisis and forced social isolation, the last thing that AVANCE could do was step back. We knew that our families, those who are disproportionately experiencing the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, look to us for support and guidance to find community resources. As a trusted source in our communities, we had to stay connected to our families and figure out a way to continue to provide support and a sense of normalcy in a very uncertain and stressful time. The question we faced was, “How?”.

Understanding and addressing the needs of families and staff

Our first concern was understanding the needs of our families AND our staff. At AVANCE, our staff are our families, literally. Just under 50% of our staff are graduates of our core Parent-Child Education Program. In Texas, the shelter in place orders were being announced during spring break, when our operations were already closed for the week as we follow the school district calendars. With program operations paused for the week, we were able to connect with our staff to understand their needs and start brainstorming how we were going to connect with our families.

We quickly learned that our staff felt a responsibility to continue to be a source of social connection and support for our families, and our families communicated that they needed it. What some don’t know about our core Parent-Child Education Program is that it’s not just a means to increase parent education and promote early childhood education; it is a program designed to increase social capital. Many of our families come to PCEP feeling isolated and without a sense of belonging. Through connecting with our staff and the other parents in their classes that have shared lived experiences, they begin to develop a social network that provides support, friendship, and access to additional community resources.

Those Closest to the Problem Are Best Suited to Solve the Problem

While we were creating a plan to connect with our families and continue services, the world around us changed drastically. School districts extended campus closures and one by one, the cities we serve in Texas started to issue shelter in place orders. We quickly had to pivot our plan. Not only did we have to ask our staff to work from home, they had to consider what a completely virtual PCEP might look like. Our programming staff didn’t skip a beat. They convened across the network via video conference and transformed PCEP from a face-to-face education program to a virtual eLearning program called PCEP on Wheels! There was just one problem: the digital divide.

We knew connectivity would be an issue for both our families and our staff given the digital divide. According a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019, nearly 50% of Latinx families do not have computers in their homes and close to 40% do not have home broadband. However, the majority of Latinx families do have smartphones (79%) and we learned that many of our staff connect with our families outside of the classroom via WhatsApp. In an effort to cause the least amount of disruption during an already disruptive time, our staff came up with a plan to not only assess the needs of our families through phone calls and WhatsApp, but also to continue to provide programming through the app as it allows for video content to be shared easily and has a group chat function.

Our first call to action was to get computers and internet into the homes of all our staff. We leaned on our community and asked for donations, monetary and in-kind, to ensure that all of our staff had the equipment to work from home. We could not be more grateful to our community and those who stepped up to provide support, including Amdocs who donated 20 laptops and Dallas Independent School District who loaned us 15 laptops. We also received monetary donations that allowed us to purchase an additional 10 laptops, and T-Mobile provided us a discounted rate on all the hotspots we purchased for our staff. We are proud to report that as of today, all staff have connectivity in their homes and are adjusting to their new normal.

Having access to technology is one thing; being able to use it is another. Just a few months before the coronavirus outbreak, many of our staff self-reported a fear of technology and a lack of tech literacy. They asked for support and training in this area. While we recognized the need and the importance of tech literacy training, at the time we did not see an urgency. Boy, were we wrong, and so were our staff – they were tech gurus and they didn’t even know it!

Our staff evaluated the remaining curriculum content, selected the core elements that they felt were essential for parents and children, and developed a plan to deliver the content via video instruction. They turned their homes into classrooms and are continuing to drive our mission of supporting parents as their children’s first teachers and ensuring that the home is the first classroom. They are creating video clips of themselves teaching the core lessons and providing toy making instructions. They have scheduled “discussion sessions” during their normally scheduled class time, but instead of an in-person discussion, they open a group chat on WhatsApp and create a space for parents to connect, ask questions about the lessons, and share resources with each other. Our staff has quickly learned that technology is not as scary as they thought, and in fact, they learned that they are actually really good at using technology and that they are incredibly resilient and innovative!

Providing support to Staff

For some, working from home is a familiar experience and even seen as a luxury. For many of our staff, this was the first time in their careers that they were going to have to work from home. In addition to dealing with the uncertainty in the world around them and having their children home from school, they were being asked to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of their job from their homes. This initially seemed like an impossible task for some of our staff, not only because of their roles, but also because of the lack of connectivity in their homes. With the help of our community, we were able to bridge that digital divide for our staff, but that was just the first step.

We are also taking this opportunity to support our staff during this challenging time by providing them with tools and resources they need to cope with the transition and learn new skills to support their personal and professional growth. Every week, we roll out new training material that staff can access through our payroll system. The content is based on their feedback. At the end of each week, we send out a survey to ask them what they feel is or is not working and what other training and support they would like to receive. They are asking for training in technology, support with working from home, and tools for coping and self-care tools, and this time we are listening!

Have Hope and Share Gratitude

As of today, our families are getting resources to support their basic human needs through phone calls and check-ins. Parents feel connected to our staff and their fellow classmates. Their children are still learning. Parents are still learning – not just learning early childhood content, but also practical health and safety information.

This pandemic has created so much trauma and turmoil, but in the face of such chaos, we all have to remain hopeful and resilient. We have to think outside the box, and we have to remember that COVID-19 is impacting everyone in very different ways. We have learned so much from our staff during this time. While the first question should still be “how are you doing?” and the second, “how can I (we) help?”, we may want to think about a third question, “what gives you hope?” I’ll tell you what gives me hope. It’s seeing our staff rise up to respond to an opportunity to support our families and each other in ways that we didn’t think possible (at least for another few years). It’s seeing them meet that challenge with care, innovation, and bravery. We will continue to move forward, supporting our staff and our families as we all navigate these uncertain times. And while we can’t be sure of what the coming months will bring, one thing is for certain, COVID-19 will not bring us down! Adelante!

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