Stock up on earphones and slap on your PJs. School’s back in session… almost.
With Santa Barbara Unified getting back in the swing of things on Wednesday, teachers and students alike faced their first day of online instruction, a precautionary switch as the coronavirus pandemic endures. While schools across the county have had Spring Break of last week to prepare their virtual classrooms, uncertainty over what remote learning looks like in practice still remains.
To reassure teachers as they navigate this new space, the Teacher’s Fund is offering grants of up to $1,000 to instructors in need of digital instruction tools and materials necessary for the transition to online.
“Teachers can be sitting at home, thinking of a project they’d love to do for their kids, and apply,” said Renee Grubb, founder of the Teacher’s Fund and owner of Village Property Realtors. “It’s that simple. From the beginning, we’ve tried to make it as easy on teachers as possible.”
Once an offshoot of Village Property Realtors, the now stand-alone 501(c)(3) organization has awarded more than $1.6 million to the teachers of Santa Barbara County. Today, it receives around $25k a month in requests for grades K-12, funding anywhere from $75k to $100k in grants per year.
Yet when the nonprofit saw COVID-19 shake the county’s education system, it knew there was more that could be done.
“Right now, we’re reaching out to teachers to see what they need to teach remotely,” said Ms. Grubb. “We have an ongoing staff person working from home who is constantly reaching out to different teachers and principals about what they need.
“We’ll fund just about everything we can so (teachers) can keep giving the students what the school district can’t or doesn’t deem essential.”
Through April 30, teachers can apply for the grant online at teachersfund.org/application-form/. These requests are separate from any previous ones that may have been placed. Typically, the Teacher’s Fund allots one grant per teacher but given the extraordinary circumstances, additional grants are now up for grabs.
“A set of books doesn’t do the teacher any good now, does it?” said Ms. Grubb.
To receive a grant award by May, applications must be submitted by April 20. In fact, Ms. Grubb advises instructors to send requests as soon as possible. Doing so could help teachers get the materials they need after just a few weeks.
Applicants are usually notified whether their grant has been approved within three days of submission, with an additional 14 days to reimburse or purchase the desired supplies, Ms. Grubb explained. Such a quick turnaround time could help instructors establish a more functioning online classroom, something they’ll need for what seems to be the long haul.
On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom advised California school districts to focus on teaching from afar because it is unlikely the coronavirus will allow them to reopen before summer. Locally, SBUSD has confirmed schools will remain closed through at least May 1, putting pressure on the district to adapt.
While elementary school students will be mailed paper homework packets, SBUSD released a revised master schedule for junior highs and high schools to follow as they navigate their new virtual campuses. Hoping to establish district-wide norms, the schedule outlines three block periods a day through Thursday, with “flex time” on Fridays. Overall, the district recommends students complete around three hours of coursework each week for each class.
To see that suggestion through, secondary instructors must interact with students by the schools’ e-learning portal NEO, email, Zoom and other technology programs. Although resources at the district level are plentiful – including SBUSD-managed iPads, Wifi assistance, bilingual learning platforms, and a whole website devoted to learning at home – gaps in online instruction persist.
That’s where the Teacher’s Fund comes in. Apart from digital books, math and science applications, and audiovisual equipment, Ms. Grubb noticed most interest has focused on educational software. This includes any software to help facilitate paperless exams, provide an online reference system, or even supplement the experience of a special needs student, among dozens of other applications.
On average these programs cost about $500, but their specificity to the classroom makes widespread distribution by the district difficult, said Ms. Grubb. For that reason, the Teacher’s Fund is better equipped to provide individual instructors with the software they need most.
Still, no matter the particular request, Ms. Grubb wants teachers to know the nonprofit will be their advocate every step of the way. To her, that’s the least the Teacher’s Fund can do.
“The one thing I absolutely believe in is how creative our teachers are,” said Ms. Grubb. “Doing this for all these years, I see that requests come in, and I get excited month after month about what they come up with. They are always thinking about how they can teach their children through a different avenue.
“That’s what I love about our teachers. I mean, (the Teacher’s Fund) tries to stay strong and successful so we can be that supply to keep them thinking outside the box.”
Primarily funded by Village Properties and its real estate agents, the nonprofit hopes additional donors will step up to ensure every teacher’s grant request is fulfilled.
“The special thing about the Teacher’s Fund is that every dollar donated goes to the teachers,” said Ms. Grubb. “All of the administrative stuff is paid for by Village… We reach out to foundations and businesses all the time because the success we’ve gotten on our end determines how much we can do.”
That said, Ms. Grubb believes the support the Teacher’s Fund provides is far more than a numbers game. Instead, it all comes down to doing for teachers what they’ve done for us.
“I can only speak to my experience with my grandkids, but my daughters have told me that the teachers miss their kids,” said Ms. Grubb. “They miss seeing their faces. They have been super busy gearing up for this. That’s how great our teachers are. They’re still trying to educate our kids.”