The start of the 2020-21 school year marked the first time the Theriot family sent their children to public school. Cat Theriot said she was happy with St. Rose of Lima Catholic School but wanted to see how a public Montessori school could help her fourth grader, who has ADHD, to thrive. And her middle school daughter wanted to swim in a bigger pond.
So the kids are at Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet and Frank Black Middle School. While the middle schooler is independent, Theriot’s elementary school student needs more support than the working parents can give. And because she hasn’t heard of COVID-19 cases at the local private schools conducting in-person instruction, Theriot said she feels comfotable sending her children to in-person classes in Houston ISD.
“This is not conducive to parents who work,” Theriot said of virtual learning. “My mother is here to help. And we just joined a pod. I hope it helps things. But I pray this is over in four weeks.”
Theriot is not alone. At HISD’s September board meeting, the topic of when and how students could return to in-person learning was at the forefront. As part of a consent agenda – in which the board approved a number of items together without individual motions – the board unanimously approved a waiver request to potentially extend online learning until the end of October.
The Texas Education Agency has told school districts they will not receive state funding if they do not offer in-person instruction within four weeks of the start of school, but districts can request to extend that period by another four weeks and still qualify for funding. HISD had already planned to start in-person instruction Oct. 19 – six weeks after starting virtual learning on Sept. 8 – so the HISD board needed to submit a waiver request for an additional four weeks in order to bridge the gap and still be covered in terms of funding.
HISD still plans to start in-person instruction Oct. 19, depending on local public health conditions and recommendations.
“The board must take action to authorize this waiver by specific vote and cannot otherwise delegate the waiver application to the superintendent,” said the TEA. “All waivers are approved upon receipt.”
The waiver application must include an indication as to the local public health conditions that the local education agency believes would warrant a faster end to the transition period, like the most recent weekly count of COVID-19 cases being lower than the prior week in the county, or the positivity rate in the county dipping under 10 percent.
HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the current plan is still for all school-based staff return to campus on Oct. 12, with teachers working from their classrooms for the final week of online only-learning.
Between Sept. 21-15, parents are being asked to opt for in-person instruction or to continue with all virtual learning. A district communication on Wednesday said the choice would be for the next six-week period.
Lathan said there could be a phased-in approach to students coming back to school between Oct. 19 and Oct. 31, if needed, based on recommendations from health authorities. Teachers received an application last week to opt into virtual learning for themselves.
Lathan referenced the Harris County Public Health guidelines, applying COVID-19 threat levels to school reopening. A lowering of the threat level from red to orange would allow for in-person instruction and activities “for certain priority populations while not exceeding 25 percent capacity or 500 students, whichever is lower, in buildings or rooms.”
Lathan also said the district has been looking at renting other facilities to be able to safely distance students. She also acknowledged that the HCPH guidelines may conflict with mandates from the TEA.
District I Trustee Elizabeth Santos wanted to pull the waiver vote from the consent agenda for further discussion so the community could hear the reasons for their votes. She said the district should be exercising maximum caution.
“There is still so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19,” Santos said. “We should be collaborating with health experts working at all levels of government to ensure that our community is coordinated in its approach to public health. If we open up and close down we are not going to have consistency.”
What parents are saying
District VIII Trustee Judith Cruz said she is also a parent of three HISD students and gave virtual learning high praise.
“It is a night-and-day experience from the spring,” she said.
Candice Croker has an eighth-grade student at Frank Black Middle School and a fourth grader at Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet.
“It takes a village, it’s not perfect or ideal, but it’s going smoothly at our house and I’m in awe at the level of effort put in by teachers to make this happen under tough circumstances,” Croker said.
Oak Forest’s Amber Branum, with kids at Oak Forest Elementary and Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy, also affirms her appreciation for the schools and teachers but says she doesn’t like virtual learning for kids.
“Extending it seems political to me, especially when other schools are already going face-to-face,” she said. “I know the teachers are doing all that they can, but virtual learning isn’t one size fits all for all kids. We need to go back to face-to-face learning.”
Andrea Hindi, who has a daughter at Oak Forest Elementary, said they will not return to in-person school until January at the earliest.
“(My daughter) is so happy to be ‘in school,’” Hindi said.
For many who struggle with the decision whether to go back in person, parents and teachers want to know more about how it will look.
“(My kids) envision ‘school’ and I don’t have any information to explain what it will be like,” Amanda Leal said.
By the numbers
Lathan also presented the board with numbers of those participating in online learning. Virtual learning attendance for the first day of school totaled 87,126 for elementary school, 26,253 for middle school and 47,029 for high school. The total for all was 160,408.
By the third day, however, the number had climbed to 167,163. A 2019-20 HISD Facts and Figures document listed last year’s total enrollment at 209,772.
To put things into perspective, Lathan said a third-day snapshot of enrollment last year was 199,312. The loss from year to year, using the third day as an example, was a little over 32,000.
“Every year the numbers start climbing,” Lathan said. “We’ll pick up more face-to-face.”
When Santos asked how the district would get back its students, Lathan said, “We’re knocking on doors, we’re doing callouts, billboards, radio and TV. We’re going to do everything we can to keep and locate our students. I really believe it will pick up.”
Of the 8,400 students last spring who didn’t participate in virtual learning or who were unreachable after May 1, HISD had contacted 6,272 of them as of Sept. 4. Moving forward, Lathan said they would delve into the available data to determine if students had moved to other schools, other districts, or if they had just not engaged at HISD yet.
If students do not attend online, just as if they did not show up in person, they will be dropped from the roll and put in an archive file for further district outreach. Schools are open for parents to come re-enroll their students at any time.
Another hurdle is technology. Last week Lathan said there were between 15,000 and 18,000 students who didn’t yet have the necessary technology for online, remote learning. Although the district has purchased thousands of devices and internet hotspots this summer, there is a backlog for delivery as many other school districts have the same needs. Lathan said more technology comes in weekly and is being distributed to schools.
“(Technology) is (the student’s) new textbook,” she said. “(If we) have to close a classroom, close a school or even close the district again, they need to have their device at all times.”
Because the TEA requires the district to provide an option for families with no technology and no reliable internet, HISD opened 36 campuses as Digital Learning Centers (DLC) for elementary and middle school students. Lathan said they were prepared to host up to 18,000 students. Instead, the number early last week was 681, most of them elementary school students. There are also Sanctuaries of Learning, part of church/school partnerships that host students.
“If you don’t have a device, you have a spot,” Lathan said.
When contacted, about 40 percent of parents said they were opting out of coming to a learning center and asked for a paper packet instead, but Lathan said that is not an option this school year.
Last week, HISD said at least eight of its campuses and facilities had confirmed COVID-19 cases, including Katherine Smith Elementary School, which is a digital learning center for some area students. The affected facilities were sanitized and deep cleaned, HISD said.