In the hills of West Austin, bordered by the Colorado River and Barton Creek, Eanes ISD schools ease back into the school year with a stockpile of student laptops and tablets and a bevy of teachers at ease with virtual learning tools.

Across town, on the more economically diverse East side, Del Valle ISD has less experience with online learning, having to start from scratch: First make sure all students have WiFi and get them laptops, then teach the teachers how to run virtual classrooms.

As the school year gets underway in the Austin area, local schools all face the same challenge: Educating kids during a pandemic. How they address them depends on their resources and the priorities of the families in the district. Aside from some guiding principles, the state has largely allowed each district to work within the needs of their communities.

A look at two Austin districts that are economically and demographically different from each other provides a glimpse into what some of those differences are, and how schools are approaching a struggle they all share.

(According to 2018-2019 data)

On Wednesday, Eanes ISD welcomed its 8,000 students back for online learning. Eanes Superintendent Tom Leonard said after three weeks the district will transition to in-person instruction for students with the most needs, up to 25% capacity.

"We're going to have to be agile and flexible and have to adapt to different governing agencies, whether it be TEA, the governor, the county or the city," Leonard said. "If conditions and stages get better, we'll bring in more kids. If conditions and stages get worse, we've got a plan to go back the other way."

In a district survey taken earlier this month, 61% of Eanes parents said they want their children to return to in-person learning as soon as the option is available to them. The other 39% of Eanes parents opted for continued virtual learning, although some parents are considering forming learning pods of students on their own. However, that practice can be expensive, and usually considered a solution only for more well-off families, with some exceptions.

In the event that in-person classes are shut down, the students will be able to transition fairly easily because, as Leonard said, his district is "blessed" to have had virtual learning for a long time and students supplied with laptops and tablets for a decade.

"Our kids all have devices," Leonard said. "Our teachers have always been using different software and different online materials, so it is not as big of a leap for us to function in a remote setting as it has been for some other school districts."

That would include Del Valle ISD, which spent the summer scrambling to get technology to students, training its teachers and prioritizing school-based resources for students in need, said Ana Rush, Del Valle ISD's executive director of academics and accountability.

"We want to make sure that the lessons themselves are rigorous and engaging and that we're closing the gaps … that the students may have," Rush said. "We want to make sure they're still progressing academically."

The district is staying online for the first eight weeks of school, which started last Monday. Some 15% of the district's nearly 11,000 families did not have reliable internet access at home. To remedy that, the district surveyed several companies to provide hotspots for everyone.

"Right now we're ... at 99.9% connectivity through WiFi and through the hotspots, which we did not have in the spring," Rush said. "And that's something we were able to solve to make sure that we started the school year with all the students being able to connect."

A sizeable percentage of their students also use lunch programs and counseling services, so district officials spent much of their prep time arranging for students to have access to those resources, Rush said.

On the in-person vs. online choice, Del Valle parents are split right down the middle. Half want to send their kids back to school at the earliest opportunity, many because they are essential workers, Rush said.

But the other half fear exposure to a family member if their child goes to school. Eighty-five percent of Del Valle ISD's students are Hispanic, a demographic that has been hit especially hard by COVID-19 in Texas and nationwide.

Naila Martinez, 36, said her kids received their devices from the school, which helped her in her decision to keep her 5th grader and high schooler, both asthmatic, at home for online school.

"With flu season, their asthma flares up already, especially the fifth grader, and just imagine in the middle of this pandemic with these symptoms of COVID and the regular flu overlapping—it's just going to be mayhem if any one of them goes to school," Martinez said. "I'm always going to have that fear hanging over me, like what if they get COVID?"

(Roschetzky Photography/Adobe)

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