When schools closed in Fall Creek, Wis., because of the coronavirus, the district staff got an unusual message. Don't worry for now about assignments or quizzes, Superintendent Joe Sanfelippo told them. Instead, "I want you to call people. And I want you to ask them two questions: How are you doing? And do you need anything?"
The district had also ordered Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hot spots to help connect families in this small, rural community. But the hotspots were delayed, and many families live in areas with poor signal strength.
Plus, Sanfelippo was after a different connection: "We're not even talking about Internet connection," he says. "We're talking about connection to an adult in the building."
For Sanfelippo and many educators around the country, the biggest fear with schools shut down isn't lost learning, it's losing contact with their students. So they're going back to an old-fashioned communication tool: the telephone.
"It's kind of an analog approach to connecting with students, but it works," says Michael Magee, the CEO of Chiefs for Change, an organization that works with school superintendents across the country. "The greatest danger to both learning and the health and well-being of their communities is not having a line of sight on every single child."
Schools are often the most trusted places in communities. Families turn to them for information, resources, food and a link to other social services. "It's a teacher or a principal or someone in the school community who families are most likely to trust," says Magee, "and so they play a critical role at this moment that goes well beyond the role they play in learning and academic achievement."
Chad Gestson, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District, agrees. "There's magic in phone calls," he says. "Magic and personal touch."
In Arizona's capital, the digital divide is stark, despite a massive effort to get families connected to the Internet. So Gestson and his team created an initiative called Every Student, Every Day: They pledged to call every student — there are about 28,000 of them — every day.
"We certainly haven't abandoned the importance of the Internet and laptops and devices and online learning," Gestson explains. "We continue to push that. But we serve a large population of youth who don't have devices or connectivity in the house. If we want to connect to 100% of our youth, most of that will have to happen over the phone."
Every adult who works for the district — bus drivers, teachers, coaches, support staff — even the superintendent — was assigned a list of students to call.
And while they ask questions about academics and connectivity, that's not the main reason they call, Gestson says. Instead, it's: How are you doing today? How's your family doing today? Do you still live in your current residence? Are you worried about rent? Do you have food on your table and in your cupboards? Is your electricity still on? Is anyone sick in your house?
The district staff have been at this for a little more than a week. They've heard stories of successes — that students are filling out their financial aid forms for college, or they're working on projects and assignments. But they're also hearing from families who've lost their incomes and are on the brink of homelessness, who need food and other social services.
And while they estimate they've talked to most of the district's students, there are still about 5,000 they haven't reached.
"That's a scary number," says Gestson. "We're trying every day. Numbers are disconnected, and youth aren't answering phone calls. We don't know if that means they're homeless or if they've moved. We don't know if that just means they no longer have a phone or electricity."
Gestson says he and his staff aren't giving up. They're doing home visits now, too. While maintaining a safe social distance, he says, educators are out there, knocking on doors. They're letting students and families know that even though school buildings are closed, the teachers and staff are still there, with open arms.