Launching Virtual Education at Southwest Key Shelters
It’s Monday morning. You’re getting ready for your English class. You grab your tablet and swipe your fingers across the screen to open your classroom app. Your teacher’s bitmoji avatar appears and begins the lesson.
That’s the experience of education in 2020, whether a student is learning at home or in one of our shelters.
Education is a huge part of life at Southwest Key; something we’re passionate and excited to provide to the youth in our care. Many of the children in our shelters have never had the opportunity to enter a classroom, and they love to gather in their classrooms for each lesson. Each child receives 6 hours of education every weekday in line with federal standards. We strive to make this time engaging and valuable because we believe so strongly in the value of education. We believe education allows for greater opportunities for youth once they’re unified and begin their lives in the U.S.
But in 2020, education at Southwest Key needed to go virtual—and fast.
When COVID-19 began spreading across the United States, shelters needed to adapt education for social distancing while still providing the requisite education hours each week. On top of that, youth just arriving at the shelter needed a way to start learning while they went through the medical isolation process required to ensure they weren’t carrying the virus. This is also an important time when the youth’s current level of education is analyzed, so that they can be placed in the correct English course, for example.
It was a tall task, but fortunately, Lead Teacher Diana Peloso and Regional Director of Education Ana Navarro were on the case.
Diana and Ana quickly put together a team to work on Casa San Diego’s response to CDC guidelines and recommendations for COVID-19 prevention. At first, it was brand new territory with very little information to go on. “There were two main goals: First, we had to provide a virtual experience for youth who had just arrived at the shelter,” Diana said. “Then, we had to look into how to take our current education routine online for the whole class—and the teacher.”
Diana and Ana worked with Southwest Key’s Risk and Safety team to create a pilot program and participated in a virtual conference with the University of Texas at San Antonio about making lessons interactive through technology. When the CDC provided guidelines for classrooms and schools in July, Diana found herself researching entirely new topics. Things like how to sanitize textbooks after a student uses one in class.
“Diana became the guru of our virtual world. She had to implement technology quickly and efficiently. With the help of her online education guide, all our shelters have been able to follow her lead and go virtual for their classes.”
Regional Director of Education
How Does It Work?
So how do these virtual lessons work? After a digital presentation introducing newly-arrived youth to life at Southwest Key, students join virtual classrooms.
“We decided to go with printed materials that students could use to follow along with a teacher sharing information one-to-one,” Diana said. The teachers even have bitmoji avatars they use to share a bit of personality in their lessons.
From there, the use of technology evolved from simple one-on-one lessons to group sessions where a teacher would sit with five or six students on a group call. Now, students participate in remote study sessions, where students work together to prepare for an upcoming project or exam. Staff have even noticed that through virtual learning, students are becoming more familiar with English terms.
But what did students think of these changes? In short, they loved the new technology-enhanced lessons.
“We’ve had a tremendous response of engagement from the students. We have daily check-ins with students and 100% of student survey responses have been positive. We’re always looking for opportunities to grow and evolve the lessons, too.”
“Being in the pandemic has opened up a lot of new horizons for us,” Ana said. “We always had the idea of doing something like this for intake, but COVID made it a top priority. We’ve taken a step toward the future of education by necessity, but I’m glad we’re moving toward it.”
Diana agreed. “Even in a world without COVID, you can’t just get comfortable, the old methods won’t work forever. There’s always room for innovation and evolution for education.”
Looking for more on the future of education? Learn how our Juvenile Justice Alternate Education Programs switched to remote learning.