With many Central Texas parents hitting an academic fork in the road this past year—choosing between in-person or remote learning—experts say the results of those decisions may not be revealed until the fall semester starts.
For west Travis County resident Mica Gutierrez, the year has been about juggling. Although both of her sons started out the year learning remotely, she said that style wasn't productive for her youngest teen, freshman Truman Householder.
"He would click on the Zoom call and then lay down and take a nap," Gutierrez said. "It was difficult to keep an eye on everything, especially with work."
At the recommendation of his school counselor, Householder went back to in-person learning in January, an option Gutierrez said holds him "more accountable" by being in class. Her less socially-minded son remained remote. Although Gutierrez doesn't see Truman's fall semester as a waste, she says "it was definitely not great instruction because he wasn't getting it, but that was his choice."
Jackson Householder, age 16, remained a remote student while his younger brother is finishing the 2020-21 school year in person. (Mica Gutierrez)
In a different light, Angela Shori praised the Eanes school district's remote education program used by her second and fourth-grade daughters. Since March 2020, the girls have been remote, with both Shori and her husband working full-time from their Westbank home. Shori said her daughters stayed on track for the year, but acknowledged she's had to be more hands-on, even setting their alarms to signal schedule changes.
"There's a lot of personal responsibility to this," she said. "You can't just set it and forget it, but that is an investment we were willing to make given the situation we were in."
Ainsley and Avery Shori learn remotely in West Austin. (Angela Shori)
Licensed school psychologist Dr. Amy Brown said the year has been a mix of success and struggle for students, with next year looking uncertain in terms of academic progression.
"What we don't know is the outcome, with the families who are saying 'it went well,' (meaning) behaviorally, procedurally, getting things done, turning in assignments," Brown said. "But, as a measure of their learning, and whether they've progressed a year or not, that's what we don't know."
Earlier this year, the Texas Education Agency found students lost nearly six months of learning. Locally, Austin ISD officials report that for the fourth six weeks of the 2020-2021 school year, 40% of its high school students are failing one or more classes, a 6% increase from the year before. Those statistics have given rise to discussions about a state proposal to give parents the authority to have their children repeat a grade.
Brown said introverted and self-driven children may have been more successful over the past academic year, accepting the challenge to take care of things themselves. However, she said students who didn't have as productive a school year were often those who struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, trying to stay on track, maintain assignments and be in tune with virtual instruction.
The year's outcome may have fallen along socio-economic lines, with parents' accessibility and ability to help or be present to supervise instruction key, Brown said.
The varying measures of student success during the past year stemmed from mobility and access as many homes lacked the technology to keep up, said Director of Communication and Community Engagement at E3 Alliance Alex Chandler. E3 is a local data-driven education collaborative that works to make improvements to education.
"There are parents who are not digital natives," Chandler said. "We have lots of parents who have English as a second language. They're now trying to navigate technology that they don't understand, (and) they're being teachers while working their job."
Attendance at public schools is down, with E3 most concerned about a 33% decline in Central Texas pre-kindergarten enrollment, a program that is important for students to start their academic process, he said.
"We know that students who attend a full-day, low-ratio pre-K program are far more likely to graduate from high school, far more likely to score better on their STAAR tests in third grade and go on to get some sort of post-secondary credentialing," Chandler said.
Back in the Gutierrez/Householder family, Gutierrez said the year has had an upside, with her sons' relationship becoming closer despite the teens' divided learning styles.
"Everyone's adjusted and kids are pretty resilient," she said.
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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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Marisela Maddox is no stranger to the nanny game, having hired at-home caregivers in the past to help with her two children, ages 5 and 10.
In the early pandemic days, the Austin family managed without one, working and quarantining from home. But around June, when the national conversation about education started to lean toward online public schools, "I was starting to get very nervous," Maddox said.
So she looked for someone who could work full time and be ready to help with the education of her fourth-grader, who she assumed would be doing school entirely online.
That's when she learned that the market, the candidates, the health considerations and—most notably—the cost of hiring someone to be around your kids all day is a lot different now in the days of unpredictable and fast-changing school, work and money situations, than it was in the pre-COVID era.
When she hired a grad student in his late 20s, she said, the two other finalists were immediately hired by friends—a sign of the tight market that she hadn't seen before.
Maddox is paying 20% more than she used to—$25 an hour, up from the typical $20 rate—just to make sure the nanny was willing to stick with the family through such uncertain times. While her older child ended up returning to school, Maddox has kept the nanny around in the case that schools shutdown again.
"I think you have to pay more. I really do," said Maddox, a mediator and small business owner. "You have to incentivize people to want to stay because you really don't want to be doing this every three or four months."
Several employers and families said that pay has risen for several reasons: the influx of and demand for higher-paid educators into the nanny market, the instability of work and school schedules, the higher demands placed on caregivers and fear of COVID-19 all brought on by the pandemic.
The need for nannies, the availability of them and the ability to pay for them has risen and fallen as virus conditions and shutdowns have fluctuated throughout the summer, said Amber Mayhew, an Austin mom and nanny, and owner of Nanny Poppinz, a referral service she has operated in Austin for about a decade.
"In March, which is usually a very busy time of year for us, business stopped for a couple of months," she said. "And then it kind of picked up for a little bit, and then we kind of had the second flow of everyone panicking it seemed like, and so it slowed down again. And now it's starting to pick up again."
Along with the unstable market, families whose children are doing online school are looking for people who are more qualified in education or technology, and many of the candidates are now former educators or daycare workers who were laid off or worried about teaching in-person classes at public schools.
There is also less job stability because pandemic-era shutdowns, quarantines and COVID-19 infections put family needs in flux as schedules shift to accommodate school and work changes. And everything can shut down if a family member or the nanny gets sick and the nanny can't come into the home for weeks or months.
And the stakes are higher when it comes to health considerations. Families and nannies have to put a lot of trust in each other not to engage in behavior that could put one or both of them at risk.
"We've been very conservative in how much we've been leaving the house, and canceled all our vacations this summer, no road trips or anything, so the idea of having someone in our house was a little scary," said Austin mom Jeni Putalavage-Ross, who, after a difficult search, hired the daughter of a trusted friend to help with her 8-year-old and twin 6-year-olds.
All of this not only drives up the price, but it can make the overall experience more trying—both for the parents and for the providers.
"It can be done, but it requires more resources," Maddox said. "I had to do a lot of self checking. We had a lot of conversations around it. But I think it'll be OK. Everybody's sort of figuring it out right now."
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As some children gear up to head back to school, many parents are wondering what to expect next with their child's learning.
For Ashley McGuire, mother of 6-year-old Mason, in-person schooling can't come quickly enough. The online process, she said, is lonely and has been frustrating for everyone in the family.
"I'm not equipped to be a school teacher," McGuire said. "I never wanted to be a school teacher. My kid is struggling. He needs structure, and he needs better advice than I can give him."
Mason working on his e-learning assignments from home. (Photo courtesy of Ashley McGuire)
Mason will attend first grade online through the first nine-week grading period of the year, returning to his Lake Travis elementary school during the second nine weeks, a choice the family made because McGuire has concerns about him getting sick at school.
"Your kids are not always as good as teachers say they are," McGuire said. "It's very difficult to have them keep (their mask) on, especially properly, you know, over the nose and all that stuff. I mean, they're kids. They pick their noses, for goodness sakes."
As some schools and districts are opening their doors for the fall semester, health professionals are nervous about COVID-19 cases in classrooms.
Dr. Stanley Spinner, vice president and chief medical officer at Texas Children's Pediatrics and Texas Children's Urgent Care, said there is no practical way to test every student returning to school and many doctors expect rates to spike in October as a result.
"Those that may be asymptomatic are certainly going to have the capacity to infect those around them," Spinner said. "We know that someone is just as likely to infect another person whether they are asymptomatic or symptomatic if they have COVID, so that's one of the reasons we expect rates to go up again as we get kids into class."
Detecting whether or not someone has the flu or COVID-19 is going to be more difficult as flu season approaches, as the two viruses have similar symptoms.
Spinner said very few children require hospitalization for COVID-19. In fact, many more children are hospitalized for the flu, but getting a flu shot can greatly decrease the need for medical care.
"What most people don't understand is... that vaccine works exceedingly well to prevent the vast majority of those infected individuals from getting sick enough to be in the hospital," Spinner said. "The vaccine is critical when it comes to minimizing the severity of the illness of influenza."
Spinner said getting a flu vaccine is uniquely important this year to help reduce the strain on hospitals and healthcare workers.
"If we start seeing a lot of flu in the community and we're starting to see more COVID because of school starting, we would really worry that we're going to see a lot more adults and children hospitalized, which would put a much bigger strain on hospitals (and) medical care personnel," Spinner said. "(COVID-19 and the flu) together could cause a lot of problems."
Spinner said the best way to prevent spreading and becoming infected with COVID-19 or the flu is to wear a mask and maintain social distancing.
"Wear a mask anytime you're around other people, especially when you're inside," Spinner said. "When you're around groups of people, you should be wearing a mask. Period. That's the number one best preventative."
In the meantime, McGuire said she and her son are adjusting to new habits to protect others around them, such as wearing masks and frequently sanitizing their hands anytime they go out.
"We're all navigating this together," McGuire said. "I think everybody's doing the best they can with what they have."
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