When the coronavirus pandemic first hit Texas, school districts were quick to launch e-learning programs. Now, almost a year and a half later, the districts are rushing to do it again.
An increase in COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant and lack of access to the vaccine for children under 12 pushed several districts to offer last-minute online options, but not for everyone or for much of time.
Dallas school leaders on Thursday announced to eligible families a short-term virtual option for children too young to get the COVID-19 vaccine and those who are medically vulnerable.
All DISD schools had reopened on Monday. Administrators hope this new option will be appealing to families who have not yet sent their children to the classroom for fear of the virus.
“It is in the best interest of our students and the community that we get children in school, even if it is virtual and even if it does not have funding,” said Deputy Superintendent Susana Córdoba.
A last-minute session of House Democrats during the regular session killed a Texas bill that would have funded virtual school in a similar way to face-to-face learning. This caused many districts to back down from their original plans to offer online programs.
Some districts are now reversing as the pandemic continues. It is possible that a similar funding law could be passed in the current special session, but this is hampered by the lack of a quorum.
Frisco, Plano, Coppell, Sunnyvale, and Richardson ISD also created limited virtual programs, opening enrollment days before their school years began. Garland announced plans Wednesday afternoon, nearly two weeks after classes began in that district.
Only sixth-graders or elementary students (those too young to get the vaccine) can enroll. Most are only approved for the first nine weeks of fall, although they could be extended. This iteration of e-learning also requires intensive parental commitments in many cases, leading to equity issues.
While face-to-face learning is much more effective for the vast majority of students, families are afraid to go back to school amid a confusing mosaic of safety protocols. Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning school districts from imposing masks, which goes against the recommendations of disease control and prevention centers.
Some local leaders openly challenge him and require facial coverage in the classroom.
After Austin ISD announced it would need masks, KXAN reported, more than 750 parents re-enrolled their children in face-to-face school after the first time they indicated they wanted to do e-learning.
Meanwhile, another district in the Austin area announced it filled the 350 places available for his district’s virtual learning option in 19 minutes of the application process opened last week.
Frisco school officials did not set a limit on the number of young students who can enroll in their online program, but that will cost them.
To date, more than 8,300 Frisco children have enrolled, more than 10% of its total student population. If they remain enrolled during the fall semester, administrators estimate they could lose about $ 30 million. For now, they plan to use much of their aid to alleviate the coronavirus to cover the cost, while maintaining hope for state funding.
Change of opinion
Even districts that initially opposed e-learning are rethinking themselves. Prior to the school year, the Highland Park ISD Pandemic Response Committee discounted online classes.
“There is a strong, if not unanimous, very, very broad consensus among our teachers and our administrators that virtual instruction is inferior to face-to-face instruction,” said Board Chair Tom Sharpe.
But since the committee last discussed the issue in June, COVID-19 cases have increased. Now the district is open to reconsideration, Superintendent Tom Trigg said during a meeting Monday.
Some have criticized districts for their reliance on families in the latter form of online learning, which could make the choice virtually impossible for single parents and workers.
At Plano ISD, the virtual program is “parent-led,” meaning it does not include live instruction and does not involve a campus teacher with a child’s daily work. Other districts, such as Garland, describe their offerings in a similar way.
“The e-parent-led e-learning plan is very different from what your child experienced last year during remote learning,” wrote Garland officials, who noted that all learning is autonomous and that attendance will not be made. The district added that it is up to parents to run their virtual program due to the shortage of teachers.
In Dallas, there will be teachers dedicated to the e-learning program, with no classrooms involving virtual and face-to-face children.
Approximately 2,400 students enrolled in the Plano option as of Aug. 11, officials said, but that figure is likely to fluctuate.
Offering e-learning has not been a clear decision.
ISD Hurst-Euless-Bedford administrators discussed the issue at a two-hour meeting Monday before giving preliminary approval to offer a limited program for kindergarten through sixth grade students. The board will re-vote on the issue next Monday and, if approved, the program would not begin until Sept. 7 to allow the district to hire and train staff.
Prior to the vote, Substitute Professor Dianthe Hall urged administrators to reject the e-learning proposal, saying “the children have paid the price.”
“I currently have an extremely bright student classroom, but most can’t read their names legibly,” Hall said. “They’ve been learning through screens instead of pencil and paper.”
State officials have noted that test results show that e-learning has not been as effective as face-to-face instruction over the past year. STAAR results show a greater loss of learning in districts that had more students online for longer periods than in districts that had more students in face-to-face settings.
Brody Mulligan, a community member at HEB ISD, acknowledged that e-learning is not without its problems. But he stressed that administrators had to acknowledge the medical concerns of some students.
“Offering a virtual option for select students who have immunocompromised needs, who have specific medical needs, is right,” Mulligan said. “It’s a compassionate thing.”
At Fort Worth ISD, some administrators recently asked the administration to bring a virtual learning plan to the board for consideration. Trustee Daphne Brookins said this option should be explored citing the number of parents who are afraid to send their children to school.
He agreed that face-to-face classes might be the best way for students to learn, but the board should do everything it can to protect children.
“We want to make sure they’re still learning,” Brookins said.
Some remote financing
The state has proposed at least one system under which Texas schools could still receive funding for distance learning, but it only applies to a limited number of students.
Quarantine students (those who have been identified as close contacts or who have received a positive COVID-19 test) could keep up with classes through “remote conferencing,” a TEA-approved online learning method. , according to the proposed rules.
Preschool through fifth grade students should receive at least four hours of instruction, two of which should be lived with teachers each day. Older students would need at least four hours of live class for schools to get funding.
Under the TEA proposal, students could only learn through “remote lectures” for 20 days of class. And teachers could not teach students face-to-face and remotely at the same time.
Districts have different policies for treating students who are sick with COVID-19 or in quarantine.
Richardson ISD, for example, hopes to rely on remote conferencing, which will be separate from its e-learning option. Each elementary grade will have “COVID support teachers” who will zoom in with students while they are at home.
A COVID support teacher who works with first-graders, for example, will each day “visit any of our district’s first-graders who are in quarantine and provide direct math instruction and reading instruction.” said Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum. Other topics will be covered in online activities and lessons.
“We will be evaluating and receiving input from students, teachers and parents, so we can make any adjustments if necessary,” he said.
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The DMN Education Lab delves into coverage and conversation on urgent educational issues that are crucial to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, supported by The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Texas Communities Foundation, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network , Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.