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As fall progresses, Texas public school superintendents are realizing that virtual instruction simply is not working for thousands of students across the state.
Report cards from the first weeks of the school year show more students than last year failing at least one class. Students are turning in assignments late, if at all; skipping days to weeks of virtual school; and falling behind on reading, educators and parents report. Many parents say they're exhausted from playing the role of at-home teacher, and some students without support at home are struggling to keep track of their daily workload with limited outside help.
The problems are concentrated among students trying to learn from home, more than 3 million of the state's 5.5 million public school students, according to administrators' accounts. The trends are adding urgency to calls for getting more students back into classrooms as quickly as possible.
By now, many school districts hoped their students would be making up academic ground lost last spring, when the pandemic caused them to shut down classrooms. Texas is mandating that districts get back to normal this fall and prepare students for upcoming state standardized tests. Schools dialed up the intensity of their classes — and then an alarming number of students began failing.
As the first grading period came to a close, some administrators began temporarily backpedaling from their initial insistence on academic rigor. They gave teachers the message: Do what you can to make sure kids pass.
Judson Independent School District, in San Antonio, added a note to its grading handbook allowing principals to "grant any exceptions" and "extend grace" to students, letting them make up late work or drop assignments. "We understand that connectivity issues, lack of devices, technological issues with the Student Portal, Canvas, and electronic books may impede a student from submitting their assignments in a timely manner," the handbook now reads.
Cathryn Mitchell, principal of Austin ISD's Gorzycki Middle School, sent an email in early October, obtained by The Texas Tribune, alerting all staff to a "campus-wide dilemma." Almost 25% of students were failing at least one class, including 200 failing more than one subject. She attributed the failures to steep technology learning curves, lack of access to devices and Wi-Fi, shifting reopening guidelines and anxiety over the health risks of on-campus learning.
The email implored teachers to exhaust "all measures to assist the student before failing them," including working with them one on one, emailing or calling parents, and setting up Zoom parent conferences. For teachers unable to do everything to help a failing student before the grading deadline, Mitchell wrote, "we would ask that you gift the student with a 70." Texas' "no pass, no play" rule prohibits students pulling less than a 70 in one or more classes in a marking period from playing sports or participating in extracurricular activities for three weeks.
"We know that some students are taking advantage of the situation or have procrastinated to get themselves into this position. There is no question about that," Mitchell wrote. "But we also know that we have asked a great deal of them these first five weeks. ... This will not be the norm every six-weeks."
Austin ISD officials told the Tribune that school leaders are "committed to high standards of academic rigor" and working to "better serve" students with low averages or incomplete grades based on their individual needs. They did not respond to questions about whether Mitchell's approach was supported by the district or whether 25% is an average failure number across the district this marking period. According to KVUE-TV, about 11,700 Austin ISD students are failing at least one class this year, a 70% increase from last year.
As the extent of students' struggles become clear, parents and superintendents are increasingly determined to get students back to school, the pendulum of their worries swinging away from health risks and toward the risks of students not learning at all. "Districts are starting to feel some real internal pressure as educators," said Joy Baskin, legal services director at the Texas Association of School Boards. "If they feel that there's enough momentum around getting everyone back, I think that's their preference."
State data on COVID-19 in schools is limited and full of gaps, but it points toward low student infection rates, encouraging some experts. Experts say layering policies such as sanitization, social distancing and masks is needed to reduce the risk of transmission. Despite outcries from some teachers and parents, dozens of school districts have nixed their virtual learning options altogether and brought nearly all students back to classrooms.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, at least one of those districts is attempting to require all remote learners with failing grades to return in person — violating recently updated state guidance. "Discontinuing remote instruction in a way that only targets struggling students is not permitted," the updated guidance reads.
Texas school districts don't have much time to get students back on track. This academic year, the Texas Education Agency will resume strict sanctions on schools and districts with consistently low student standardized test scores after pausing those penalties last spring. And there are dollars at stake, with state funding tied to student attendance. Districts have reported losing track of thousands of students, including some of their most vulnerable, who haven't logged into virtual classes or responded to phone calls and door knocks. According to state leaders, schools that are open for in-person instruction have seen higher levels of enrollment than those with only virtual education.
San Antonio's Northside ISD has not changed its expectations for virtual students, despite seeing higher failure rates, said Superintendent Brian Woods. Since many students learning from home are low income, Black and Hispanic, lowering academic standards for those students could end up deepening existing inequities, he said.
Instead, the district has put together a call team to reach out to low-performing virtual learners and urge them to come back to campus. Just under 45% of students are learning from classrooms in the second grading period, up from less than 25% earlier in the fall, when the district slowly phased students in. "We're not going to fix it by only taking the good grades or dropping half the grades," Woods said. "We've got to dig in and look more at the root cause. We know what it is: There's kids who need to be in the building, period."
In Brazosport ISD, where 78% of students are learning in classrooms, a quarter of virtual learners are failing two or more classes, compared with 8% of at-school students. The district is "not dropping our expectations for at-home students," said Superintendent Danny Massey. But with coronavirus cases dropping in Brazoria County and district officials being transparent about COVID-19 cases on campuses, more parents are gradually choosing to send their students back.
Some Austin ISD parents are considering sending their children back later this fall, once the district returns to in-person instruction that more closely resembles a regular classroom. When the district reopened, it had students sitting in classrooms but learning virtually. The state halted that approach. Rosemary Wynn, an Austin ISD parent, thinks her eighth and ninth grade sons may get more out of learning in person once it includes more face-to-face instruction.
She and her husband had a stern talk with their O. Henry Middle School eighth grader earlier this fall after realizing he had not opened about 100 emails from his teachers, except one from his football coach. He was previously a straight-A student, but at one point his grade in one class had fallen to 29, she said.
"Children don't know how to read email. That is not part of their repertoire," she said, with exasperation. "I haven't had a single teacher reach out to say, 'your kids' grades this, your kids' grades that.' I think the whole way this is set up is a recipe for disaster."
Kelly Sanders and her son Bizuayehu Crouther, a 14-year-old at Austin High School in Austin ISD, regularly debate whether he should return later this fall. Bizuayehu has dyslexia and dysgraphia, which impacts his ability to write clearly by hand, and he's found virtual learning much easier. "I do not want to go back," he said.
Sanders is concerned that the second grading period will be even more academically rigorous and that her son will not be able to keep up virtually. "I'm happy that [he is] making really good grades right now, but I'm concerned that it still isn't as rigorous as the classes would be if it were in person. If at some point he has to take a standardized test on the material, I don't know what that looks like," she said.
But for other parents, the decision is easy. Single parent Renee Schalk chose to keep her 17-year-old son and 2-year-old triplets home from Georgetown schools and doesn't regret it. "My children are children of color," said Schalk, who is Black. "I don't want them subjected to COVID-19. … We're not doing enough in this state, we're not doing anything in this country to make it safe."
Angelina Allegrini, a 14-year-old ninth grader in San Antonio's North East ISD, said her grades suffered in the beginning of the year as she got accustomed to the variety of programs teachers used for online learning and the exhaustion of staring at a screen for three to four hours a day. After a few weeks, and a little leniency from teachers, she pulled them back up.
But the social, extroverted teenager still felt she was missing something. "I wanted to try to get to know people in my class. I saw some of them on the screen, but that's not the same," she said.
On Monday, after several weeks of learning from home, Angelina walked into her high school for the first time this year. Her mother, Cherise Rohr Allegrini, a prominent epidemiologist in San Antonio, said she was "not thrilled" about her daughter's decision but predicted it wouldn't last long, with a surge in COVID-19 cases likely on the horizon. "I think they're probably going to change and close schools in a couple of weeks or so," she said. "We're going to start seeing outbreaks on campuses."
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17 years and three medals later, Osterman's last ride with USA softball is over. What's next for Cat?
Nearly two decades after her debut with the University of Texas and 17 years after her first Olympic gold, softball icon Cat Osterman stepped off the Olympic pitcher's mound for the last time with a silver medal to take back home.
Osterman, a three-time Olympian who has been called the "Michael Jordan of softball," will officially retire from the international realm at 38 after a decorated career that included Olympic golds, years of retirement and plenty of adversity—from a worldwide pandemic to dashed gold-medal dreams.
Osterman and her crew left Tokyo on a bittersweet note on Tuesday with a silver medal in hand.
Osterman with Team USA in 2008. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
Osterman in the final in 2021. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
After a year of sparse in-person training and over a decadelong hiatus, Team USA and Osterman flew to the finals. In five games, the team beat Italy (2-0), Canada (1-0), Mexico (2-0), Australia (2-1), and Japan (2-1).
Deja vu struck in the final match. On one side, Osterman and fellow 2008 Olympic teammate Monica Abbott took the mound; on the other was the 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno, a familiar foe who helped the team beat Team USA last go-round.
"Just like 13 years ago," Ueno said in a press conference, "we were facing each other in the final."
Ueno, who had lost hopes at gold to Osterman in '04, outpitched her longtime opponent with six scoreless innings as Team USA was held to just three hits. The same team that squandered their gold-medal hopes 13 years before had done it once again.
Your Tokyo 2020 Olympic Silver Medalists 🇺🇸#TokyoOlympics | @TeamUSA pic.twitter.com/MOMNOedHUd
— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) July 27, 2021
"There's a little bit of disappointment in not bringing home the gold since that's the eye on the prize when you go over there and you know you have a shot at it," Osterman told Austonia. "But more than anything, I'm very proud of the way our team handled everything that was part of this journey and not just the six games."
It's that very loss at the 2008 Olympics that partially motivated Osterman to get back on the mound. She officially put down the glove in 2015 after six seasons with the USSSA Pride, took time with family and began coaching at Texas State University.
Osterman helped ace Randi Rupp to greatness while a coach at Texas State University. (Active Voice Health/Twitter)
She thought her Olympic endeavors were well over—until talks of reinstating softball into the Games reentered the conversation.
"It wasn't until 2016 or 2017, that it ever crossed my mind to possibly put the USA uniform on again," Osterman said. "After the World Championships in 2010, I walked away, and I thought that my career on the international stage was done. So this was a pleasant kind of new opportunity."
Three years after facing any competition, Osterman was on the field once more with world-class athletes. Some, like Osterman and Abbott, had been playing together long enough to form a formidable "Fire and Ice" duo on the mound. Others had just graduated college.
Osterman said playing with a younger generation of athletes was one of the most rewarding aspects of this year's Games.
"It can be very different when you have 24- and 38-year-olds on the same field," Osterman said. "The adversity put us in some challenging positions and we came through with flying colors. And this group will forever be special just because what we had to go through is so different."
While on the mound, Osterman's job was to give the team a calm start. Off of the field, she felt her role had much of the same effect: she knew that new Olympic feeling, and she served as a deep breath to her first-time teammates.
"There's no words to explain how nervous and excited you get knowing that the whole world can be watching," Osterman. "I think using those emotions and figuring out how to get all our butterflies lined up and going in the right direction, so that way we were all moving together, was kind of my role outside of pitching."
We've heard her retire once before, but this time Osterman said she's gone for good—even from coaching. After her final time with Team USA on Sept. 27, she plans on returning to Austin, where she'll look to work for a nonprofit.
A gold and two silvers will have to do for one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. softball history.
"To be able to say you're a three-time Olympic medalist is a pretty special deal, right?" Osterman. "I played for a long time. But those are the pinnacle, in my mind, and kind of what elicits the dream to keep playing."
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Hospitals are facing a "significant" increase in admissions of pregnant women due to COVID-19 complications, Austin-Travis County health officials say, revealing what could be a long-term side effect of the virus.
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes met with three maternal medicine specialists on Monday morning to warn of yet another COVID-19 Delta variant concern: severe cases of the disease affecting unvaccinated mothers-to-be.
The doctors said unvaccinated pregnant women face an increased risk of preterm births, long-term effects, preeclampsia, ICU stays, stillbirths, being put on life support and even death if they are unvaccinated.
"We are really concerned that we are not getting that population of folks to hear this message of the safety of vaccines, so today we're assembled, one and all to say, wear a mask and please get vaccinated," Walkes said. "Vaccinations are the way to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations and death."
Medical Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. David's Women's Center of Texas Dr. Kimberly DeStefano said 95% of pregnant women admitted with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, stressing that all pregnant and lactating women should get the vaccine not only to protect themselves but to protect their babies from infection, which can be passed through breastmilk or birth.
"We know that the earlier in pregnancy you are vaccinated, the more antibodies are present at the time of birth for the infant," DeStefano said. "This is something that's very important, both during the pregnancy and postpartum."
Catching COVID-19 while pregnant can cause adverse effects on the baby, particularly because it increases the risk of preterm births. Baylor Scott & White Maternal Obstetrics Chief of Maternal Medicine Dr. Jessica Ehrig, said that preterm births are one of the "biggest impacts" on childhood development.
"We know that (preterm births) can have long-term effects depending on how early a baby's born," Ehrig said. "It increases the risk for long term respiratory issues, for blindness sometimes (and) for neurologic development delays."
Since mid-July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on a steep rise that sent the city back to recommending Stage 4 guidelines. As the seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations surpassed 50 admissions, Stage 5 guidelines could be on the horizon. The city reported 54 new admissions and 546 total new cases on Friday.
Delta is more contagious than chickenpox, Walkes said, and even vaccinated individuals can catch and spread the virus without symptoms. The group of doctors asked everyone, especially pregnant women, to mask while in public as local hospitals pass the Stage 5 threshold.
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