HISD's new dashboard will track active COVID-19 cases. Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Greater Houston parents have an important date circled and marked on their calendars: October 19. That's the day Houston Independent School District welcomes students back for in-person instruction at all schools.

However, a major point of concern and contention with area parents is the possibility of fellow students contracting, carrying, and spreading COVID-19. To that end, the district has announced a new COVID-19 dashboard to keep the community informed about the impact of the pandemic. Parents can view the COVID-19 dashboard here.

The online dashboard launched Monday, September 28, to track the number of confirmed COVID-19 students and staff cases on campuses, in an effort to display transparency, according to a press release. As of September 28, some 23 active cases are reflected on the dashboard, out of more than 222,000 students and staff.

HISD's new dashboard was developed using Texas Education Agency guidelines for reporting COVID-19. It will be updated daily, allowing users to review student and staff data by location and districtwide, according to the district. The dashboard will also include a map to clearly illustrate and mark active cases throughout the district.

All applicable privacy laws relating to the release of personal health information will be followed, according to a press release.

"As we navigate this pandemic together, we want to ensure that we are transparent as we provide crucial updates," said HISD interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan, in a statement. "This new dashboard will give our staff members and families the information they need in an accessible and easy-to-use way to make informed decisions."

For more information on HISD's reopening plan, visit the official site.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Kids in need will receive 2,000 new computers. Photo courtesy of Pixlr

Houston kids connect to $1 million in new computers thanks to local nonprofit

helping hand

As the global pandemic and hurricanes and tropical storms pester the Greater Houston area, a greater emphasis is being placed on online learning for local students. Now, to ensure there is less of a limited digital divide, a local nonprofit has made a significant gift to the Houston Independent School District.

The Moody Foundation announced a grant of $1 million to HISD for the purchase of more than 2,000 computer devices. The grant will cover devices for pre-K through fifth-grade students in the district's Achieve 180 schools, which have been designated as underserved and underperforming HISD feeder pattern communities, according to a press release.

Such a grant is pivotal in a time when data shows Texas leading the country with the widest digital divide among students and teachers. According to research from the distinct, some 35 percent of HISD 209,000 students lacked internet at home, while another 40 to 45 percent lacked a computer device. Meanwhile, per the distinct, thousands of impoverished students still require devices.

The Achieve 180 students scored lower than non-Achieve 180 students at the Approaches Grade Level on STAAR, per HISD. Reports show that these students were also less engaged during remote learning.

"The pandemic has only further magnified the digital divide," said Ross Moody, trustee of the Moody Foundation. "The Moody Foundation has a long history of supporting early childhood education to build opportunities for student success. Everyone deserves and should have the same level of access to education."

Since the onset of COVID-19 in March, the foundation has granted over $10 million in COVID-19 funds to more 100 nonprofits and schools in Houston, Galveston, and Austin.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Harris County is making sure all kids stay connected during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Pixlr

Harris County connects students in need to free high-speed internet and devices

PLUGGING IN

Schools around the nation are in a rush to return to normalcy despite the pandemic. So varied are the opinions on how to reopen that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo just released a "roadmap" for reopening.

One pressing issue is the massive digital divide between households that have internet access at home and those that do not — especially as school districts push for virtual learning. Roughly one-third of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, according to a 2020 Pew Research Study.

To that end, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved two programs aiming to end the digital divide in Harris County. The $32 million combined programs will provide more than 120,000 mobile hot spots (with unlimited data plans) and more than 250,000 devices (such as tablets and laptops) for students during the pandemic and for the remainder of the school year, according to a press release.

The programs use CARES Act Funds allocated by the Federal Government. A dollar-for-dollar match from the Texas Education Agency is also part of the funding. Nationwide carriers T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon are partnering with the program.

Once purchased, the devices and hot spots will become permanent property of the districts, which will then distribute to students within four and 12 weeks, according to the release.

"On one hand, I am thrilled we are offering help to families with the goal of flattening the education access curve," said Commissioner Garcia. "However, it pains me that it took a pandemic to close the gap between kids with reliable access to the internet at home and those that, in some cases are having to use mom or dad's smartphone to do their homework, if such a device is even available in the home. This is a great example of what we can accomplish when the state of Texas and local counties work together to help people in need."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Even in light of community concerns, HISD is moving forward on its pursuit to receive a District of Innovation designation. Getty Images

Houston school board votes in favor of moving forward with innovation designation

moving forward

In the Houston Independent School District's board meeting on Thursday, May 14, the board of trustees voted in favor to begin a process that would designate HISD a District of Innovation.

The ruling allows HISD to begin the process of receiving the DOI designation and to join the almost 900 other Texas school districts with the designation, which would be implemented for the 2021-2022 school year.

The designation would allow for several exemptions from state law, including beginning the school year earlier than the fourth Monday in August, allowing flexibility in attendance requirements, and allowing for non-accredited teachers to conduct Career and Technical Education courses.

Before the HISD board discussed the motion and voted, they heard from community members who expressed concern with this particular accreditation matter during the meeting's call for community speakers. Due to COVID-19, the speakers wrote in their concerns, which were then read for the board.

Andrew Dewey, executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, asked the board to oppose the motion as the exemptions allowed by DOI aren't in themselves innovative, he says.

To allow for non-accredited CTE instructors, "the district would have to be exempted from the entire section of the law requiring certification," writes Dewey. "That action would open the door for future administration and school boards or board of managers to allow non-certified teachers in other content areas."

Several other community members voiced this concern over allowing non-accredited teachers, and another concern was timing of the motion. A few community members argued that now is not the time to pursue the DOI designation — and Trustee Elizabeth Santos of District I echoed that concern.

"Our students deserve better than to have something shoved down their throat when there's a pandemic, and we should be solely focusing on safety and instruction," Santos says in the meeting.

Trustee Anne Sung of District VII made a motion to push back voting on the matter to the board's June meeting, but the motion was struck down in a 3-6 vote. Moving forward, Sung called for the district to proceed with caution on the accreditation of teachers.

"I want to say publicly that in the plan I will be looking for extreme rigor in protecting certification in our teachers," Sung says in the meeting.

Now that the motion has passed, it has allowed HISD's Superintendent Grenita Lathan to push forward on the DOI designation. The district's next move is to create a planning committee and collect the community's concerns on the process.

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Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Houston's biggest benefactors gift massive $50M to pivotal Rice University institute

big money

Houston’s most generous couple has once again gifted a massive sum to a local institution. Rich and Nancy Kinder’s Kinder Foundation has donated $50 million to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the organization announced.

The Kinder's generous grant will assist the institute’s focus on what it dubs “inclusive prosperity” — that is, “ensuring that everyone can contribute to Houston's success and share in its opportunities.”

This new grant follows the approximately $30 million he Kinder Foundation previously gifted Rice’s Kinder Institute and its affiliates to facilitate its headquarters.

“Over the past decade, the Kinder Institute has played an integral role in shaping Houston,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation. “However, we can do more to inform and more directly address the challenges our communities face, particularly in the areas of housing, education, economic mobility, health and population research.”

To that end, the Kinders’ funds will ensure the institute can assist its partners regardless of their ability to pay for research. Funds will also help the institute respond to community research needs quickly during times of crisis — such as a catastrophic storm or pandemic — when funds aren’t readily available.

Kinder Institute director Ruth López Turley calls the grant “a gift to all of Houston,” speaking to the institute’s work to improve lives through data, research, engagement and action.

“Inclusive prosperity doesn’t just happen spontaneously,” she noted in a statement. “It requires an explicit effort informed by research. Lots of organizations are working hard to make things better, but most of them have very limited research capacity, and that’s what the Kinder Institute is primed to do.”

Founded in 2010, the institute has evolved into a leader in research, data, and policy analysis of critical issues such as housing, transportation, and education. The institute also releases the familiar Kinder Houston Area Survey, which charts significant changes in the way area residents perceive and understand Houston’s ongoing challenges and opportunities.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.