Partnering Through a Pandemic


Despite a robust dual-language program, “trying to carry on with instruction remotely was very challenging,” recalls Superintendent Veronica Vijil of the abrupt pivot to online learning caused by the coronavirus pandemic. As they entered the 2020–2021 academic year, Vijil—like educators across the U.S.—realized online learning wasn’t going away. Yet she felt more hopeful than she had in months.

Through the Walden University DigitalTeaching and Learning Consulting Initiative, the district’s four campuses had a partner with 25 years of leadership in online learning to help them tackle the many challenges they faced.

“Walden was a godsend to us at a time where we were looking for anyone who could help us,” Vijil says.

Made up of Walden experts in operations, business, and academics, the initiative unites the university’s expertise in online learning with its mission of positive social change by providing resources and consulting services at no charge. It aims to address educational inequities for low-income students and students of color that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Fabens ISD was one of three educational institutions selected in Fall 2020 for the first phase of the initiative, alongside southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) and a K–5 elementary school in St. Paul, Minnesota.

More than a year later, as schools embark on the spring 2022 semester, the partnerships have only deepened.

Steve Canipe, associate dean in the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University, worked with Vijil to assess the needs of each campus in Fabens. Based on the results, they focused on two key areas: communication with families and the school’s role in the community.

Faculty from the College of Education and Leadership were paired with the four school principals based on their areas of expertise and each school’s needs, from online lesson plans and bilingual resources for families to virtually fostering students’ social-emotional well-being.

“The synergy that was experienced through the whole process benefited students, teachers, administration, and families,” Vijil says, noting that it inspired continued collaboration and resource-sharing among the campuses. “In a short amount of time, strong connections were made. And it just makes me believe in people all over again.”

The Walden faculty and Fabens principals continue to turn to each other as resources, Canipe adds. “The project itself is over, but they have continued to provide information and work together,” he says.

At SUNO, a historically Black college and university (HBCU) with few pre-existing online resources, the Walden partnership focused on building out online and hybrid programs as well as shifting operations and student services online.

“It just made sense that Walden, clearly a trailblazer in online instruction, would help us bridge the gap or pivot so that we didn’t stumble,” explains Eurmon Hervey Jr., special assistant to the chancellor and associate professor of education at SUNO.

After working together to identify the most pressing needs, Walden shared expertise with SUNO faculty and staff through a series of online professional development seminars.

The partnership quickly expanded from a focus on faculty and online course delivery in the earlier stages of the pandemic to retention and other essential student services.

“The partnership allows us to start thinking outside the box,” says SUNOVice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Teresa Hardee. “They gave great insights as to what worked and what didn’t work that provided a springboard for us to do some really good stuff for student support, advising, and all those things that [students need in addition to] the academic programs.”

Faculty and staff at SUNO continue to turn to their Walden partners as new opportunities arise.

At Walden, the initiative offers an opportunity for leadership, faculty, and staff to embody the university motto of Education for Good®.

“Walden has the resources to be able to do this—not just the human resources, but also the fiscal resources to take on projects like this and to be able to help our fellow institutions,” Costner says.“That Walden made it a priority and selected an HBCU to work with fills me with a lot of pride.”