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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This Gemini season, starting today, is appropriately paradoxical, twisting and blending simple concerns with life’s bigger, faster and more fiery quests.
On Sunday, May 29, we’ll experience one of the year’s biggest calls to adventure in the Mars/Jupiter conjunction—a potent duo whose combined force will start to be especially strongly felt when Mars moves into Aries on May 24. Contrastingly, Mercury, the ruler of Gemini, will keep our mental temperament grounded and steady as they move slowly through the sensual, materially-oriented sign of Taurus for most of the month. These contrasting forces might be tricky to weave together—read ahead for tips on how your sign can find the right approach this month!
Gemini: May 21-June 20Gemini: May 21-June 20
Welcome to the season of your Solar Return, Gemini! This month will set the stage for your whole coming year, so it will be great to start it off on the right foot. The most important bit of cosmic context is Mercury moving slowly till the end of the month in the grounded sign of Taurus. This is an encouragement to savor your questions and conversations with the world, without needing to rush to answers and to mull over the elemental, fundamental aspects of your life. It would be great to give yourself perspective, especially by experiencing new environments and by moving through the world in a new manner. Allow yourself to be surprised! You might loosen some of your hardened beliefs, but don’t discount the trustworthiness or substance of the new ideas you may stumble upon.
Cancer: June 21-July 22Cancer: June 21-July 22
For you, Cancer, the paradoxes of Gemini season have to do with inwardness and outwardness. On the one hand, you can expect your inner world to be as active as ever, swirling with meaningful thoughts and experiences needing to be digested. On the other, this month features a strong call to get out of your shell, open up to the world at large, and bravely share yourself—perhaps even in an unprecedented way! In transitioning between these extremes, the Moon can be as good a guide as ever—heading into and out of the New Moon on the 30th, you might focus on articulating and envisioning this burgeoning impulse and nourishing the terrain for its growth. As we ramp up to the full moon on the 14th, you might find small ways to embody, communicate and make real this developing dream.
Leo: July 23-Aug 22Leo: July 23-Aug. 22
This Gemini Season is particularly intense for you, Leo, as it calls forth both a fiery, hungry spirit and a more serious, dedicated energy, aware of life’s hardships and limitations. These impulses herald a summer of growth and maturation, which would be great to get a good jump on. Just don’t let this process make you too heavyhearted or self-involved! Your friends, community, and experience of the broader social world at large can help soften and clarify this strong, fiery self that’s metamorphosing. You might rely upon this bigger, human perspective to help you progress smoothly and gracefully. Although it might require some extra humility, taking yourself less seriously can be a superpower. A lighthearted approach can be extraordinarily efficient and effective. It might be paradoxical, but consider that relying on a bigger, greater power than your own is your path to individual fullness.
Virgo: Aug. 23-Sept. 21Virgo: Aug. 23-Sept. 21
This Gemini season brings a charge for you to expand into more substantive and serious subjects, Virgo. Especially if you feel you’ve been playing small, this will provide an opportunity for you to grow into more meaningful and demanding work in the world. At times, this will feel hectic and harsh—there will be no shortage of fire this month. You, as much as anyone, though, can help find the right place and time for that fire, directing it where there’s a need for more energy and oomph. Lightheartedness can be really helpful in navigating and dancing with this heat—with a bit of humor and perspective, you can respond and adapt quickly and gracefully. By the end of the month, you should be able to feel like your view of and faith in the bigger picture has expanded.
Libra: Sept. 22-Oct. 23Libra: Sept. 22-Oct. 23
This Gemini season will provide ample opportunities for you to learn and grow through your relationships, Libra. We’re really looking at the full spectrum of potential experiences here—on the one hand, Mars’ entry into Aries can ignite flammable subjects, and people are generally likely to be on edge, assertive and protective. On the other, Venus’ conjunction with Uranus toward the end of the month can bring unexpected encounters and new forms of relationship into play. Throughout all of this, there’s a theme for the next year of growth through fiery, direct relationships. This is a step beyond just keeping the peace which may be discomforting, but consider that it may take your relationships to incredibly satisfying and enduring places.
Scorpio: Oct. 24-Nov. 21Scorpio: Oct. 24-Nov. 21
This Gemini season brings opportunities for sharpening both your wits and tools, Scorpio, although this may feel like a trial by fire. Although they may feel particularly urgent and exciting this month, many of these challenges and opportunities will last throughout the summer, so take your time to get your focus clear and settle into a groove. The real challenge and potential this month have to do with navigating subtle, intricate dynamics so that you aren’t flustered and know exactly where to put your effort. In order to develop this discernment, you can definitely rely on trusted allies, who can act as mirrors, triangulation points and simple safe havens amid the storm. This is a strategic necessity, but be sure to give thanks and enjoy the simple goodness of companionship, too!
Sagittarius: Nov. 22-Dec. 21Sagittarius: Nov. 22-Dec. 21
The sharp, powerful impulses and stimulation of this Gemini season are pushing you to the development of your free will, Sagittarius—a spirit of playful, proud independence and spontaneity. There are a couple of ways that you might think about this. First, that courage is necessary to truly live out your convictions and ideals, as well as a way to ultimately best serve the world. Truth isn’t always soft or easy. On the other hand, this isn’t too complex and is keyed to cutting through stagnation. There’s a sort of simplicity and instinctive wisdom that you can draw upon and develop into this month, letting things happen. If you need to, you can think of this as an act of trust, or faith in a basic goodness and natural, flowing order of things.
Capricorn: Dec. 22-Jan. 19Capricorn: Dec. 22-Jan. 19
The motion and activity of this Gemini season can quickly develop your values and taste, Capricorn, as you strip back ordinary and inherited ways of thinking and open your eyes to life’s beauty. This simple and vibrant beauty will stimulate your desire to savor life’s goodness and strive for the highest quality experience possible. Along the way, your fixed, limited ideas about what is possible can fall away, even as the new and extraordinary may require incredible strength and devotion from you. Although these are lofty ideals, they’ll have a lot to do with your tangible, everyday experience of your body and sense of home—this is a primal, almost wild energy being rekindled. Alongside this intense fire comes a certain risk, so make sure to enter into this new adventure step by step, without injuring yourself or anyone else.
Aquarius: Jan. 20-Feb. 18Aquarius: Jan. 20-Feb. 18
This Gemini season can help you learn how to feel more rooted and alive in life’s simple aspects, Aquarius. Although this can certainly take place in tandem with new teachers, these don’t have to be big gurus—rather, your curiosity, delight, and common sense might be the best guides. In this regard, your quality of perception, thought and the well-being of your inner child can all make great strides. Through the first part of the month, this will likely feel exciting and overwhelming. As we approach our new moon, though, you can get a better sense of where you need to be settling into more focus and definition in your life. This back and forth between a growing sense of clarity and inner authority and a stronger capacity to be firm and to the point will continue to deepen throughout the summer.
Pisces: Feb. 19-March 20Pisces: Feb. 19-March 20
This Gemini season is focused on helping you develop a stronger sense of connection to the world around you, Pisces. Although this can take place by rearranging and bringing more life into your body and environment, an initial spirit of fresh possibility and willingness to release what is stale and outgrown is a necessity. In doing so, you can land upon a greater sense of capability and being resourced for life’s adaptations and evolutions. This will certainly be a month of growth in your material world and relationship with your body, but the serious litmus test is how settled you feel internally—the quality and clarity of your thoughts and inner world. Ideally, though this summer you’ll develop a stronger trust in yourself and an easier interface between your inner riches and outer quality of experience.
Aries: March 21-April 19Aries: March 21-April 19
The Mars/Jupiter conjunction is especially important for you, Aries, as it happens in your home sign. This signifies a spark of expansion that will play out over the coming year. Here, Jupiter is calling you into new ventures and adventures, to level up and act on the big dreams and desires brewing inside of you. Thus, this month is a great time to initiate some bigger change, to take some jump, leap or healthy risk. Although you don’t want to let this moment slip away, please don’t get impulsive or headstrong—make sure you’ve got at least a bit of a plan. Ideally, whatever you’re aiming at will require a good bit of care, and you can expect that much of this opportune, fertile energy will continue and develop throughout the next year.
Taurus: April 20-May 20Taurus: April 20-May 20
The start of the coming month will challenge you to keep up the pace, Taurus, so that it can consolidate into a healthy rhythm. Finding the right stride, you can find yourself breathing more easily, and maybe let yourself loosen your grip or take your hands off the handlebars, trusting your sense of balance and the strength in your legs. This can set the stage for an opportune spell at the end of Gemini Season, as your ruler Venus makes a conjunction with Uranus—you might keep an eye out for spontaneous side adventures, ways to create space for synchronicity, or simple moments where life is calling you into new ways of being. Ideally, these will feel like clear upgrades, but if you need to think of them as experiments or trial runs, that’s totally okay, too.
Austin police have charged Kaitlin Marie Armstrong, a local cyclist, for the murder of Moriah "Mo" Wilson.
Wilson, a rising star in the gravel and mountain bike community, was found dead with gunshot wounds inside an East Austin home on the night of May 11 when she was in town for the weekend Gravel Locos race in Hico, Texas.
Police believe Wilson was having a relationship with a man Armstrong was also in a relationship with. The man, another gravel cyclist, Colin Strickland, has since issued a statement on the murder.
In his statement, he said he had a brief romantic relationship with Wilson in October 2021 before he resumed his relationship with Armstrong, but that he remained friends with Wilson. "There is no way to adequately express the regret and torture I feel about my proximity to this horrible crime. I am sorry, and I simply cannot make sense of this unfathomable tragedy.
NEW: Austin professional cyclist Colin Strickland has just released a statement about the murder of cyclist Moriah Wilson, clarifying his relationship with her and expressing “torture about my proximity to this horrible crime.” pic.twitter.com/KnIna3mWrE
— Tony Plohetski (@tplohetski) May 20, 2022
Wilson, a 25-year-old Vermont native living in Colorado, had won a slew of races becoming a fan favorite. She had just become a full-time racer this year.
Anyone with information on this crime can contact Austin police at 512-974-TIPS or contact Crime Stoppers anonymously at 512-472-8477.
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