For Oak Forest Elementary fifth grader Valentina Guerra, not having to get dressed in the morning isn’t an adequate tradeoff for all she is missing.
“I miss going to school,” Guerra said. “I like the routine.”
She is not alone. As Houston ISD continues to weigh its options for the 2020-21 school year – ranging from online classes to A and B days limiting in-person student attendance to a year-round calendar as suggested by the Texas Education Agency – parents, students and teachers are making their wishes known.
“Every parent (and) community member I’ve spoken with misses their teacher because teachers are the number one factor in learning,” said District I HISD trustee Elizabeth Santos, who represents several area schools. “Our kids need to see a certified teacher in front of them. They need to do so in a safe, small class size.”
Added Kelli McSpadden, the parent of an HISD elementary school student: “They can have (classes) in July as long as they go back. My kids have the worst home school teacher – me.”
At a news conference last week, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said a decision was at least four weeks out and that the district was prepared to continue with online learning through any part of the upcoming school year. She also said distance learning platforms and procedures would need to be more standardized.
For Hogg Middle School sixth grader Misha Marmo, remote learning was a “mixed bag.” He said the course work varied greatly, depending on the teacher. Heights High School freshman Mattea Rodgers concurred.
“In some classes my workload has increased, but in others they don’t expect us to do a whole lot,” she said.
While the difficulty level of most classes this spring has been manageable, according to Rodgers, she worries about any increased rigor – and the need for more help – with the continuation of online classes in the fall.
“There’s only so much you can do over a Zoom call,” she said.
And for Micah Atkins, who is about to graduate Lanier Middle School and attend Westbury High School, online school was “more stressful” than in-person class. It was also hard for her not to see friends who will be scattering to different high schools next year.
“I just miss my friends the most,” she said.
Marmo said once he got used to the online schedule, things got easier.
“At the beginning I was forgetting about class, (and then) stressed out about getting on,” he said.
Students also said they valued certain aspects of the experience. Marmo could get his morning run in earlier and still have downtime before the start of class. Rodgers liked having morning classes with the opportunity to work out or relax in the afternoon.
And for Alex Kelley, who just finished his sixth grade year at Frank Black Middle School, doing more online school wouldn’t be so bad.
“I kind of want to go back to see my friends but I kind of don’t,” he said. “I had a lot more free time.”
District VIII trustee Judith Cruz, who represents a small number of schools in the Heights, said flexibility will be the key to the 2020-21 school year. The answer may not be a one-size-fits-all model and a hybrid approach might be needed. Cruz said Lathan is in frequent communication with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the other Region 4 superintendents.
“(They) are trying to figure out how to make it work for kids,” Cruz said. “It depends on a lot of factors, but things are changing daily.”
One of the most problematic considerations is transportation, especially as it pertains to an A and B day schedule in a district where school choice is the norm.
“We transport kids from all across the district to all across the district,” Cruz said. ““I wish it was more straightforward.”
Santos said that while safety is the primary consideration, the utmost effort should be spent on finding a way to make the year-round option work. Although she says she is not a fan of virtual learning, a blended model of online school and in-person instruction is a valid alternative.
Guerra said she is aware of the dangers posed by COVID-19, but it does not change her mind about going to Frank Black Middle School, in person, in the fall.
“I would be cautious, but I would not be scared,” she said.
Less agreement on DOI
While there seems to be a fair amount of consensus on the positives of the TEA year-round designation, which would require approval from the HISD school board, there is less on the board’s recent decision to pursue a District of Innovation (DOI) status. The board vote, by a margin of 7-2, sets in motion a multi-month process to evaluate and vote on HISD’s DOI designation.
The District of Innovation concept, passed in 2017, gives traditional independent school districts most of the flexibility available to Texas’ open-enrollment charter schools.
One of the no votes was Santos, a former HISD teacher.
“A district of innovation is anything but innovative,” she said.
The Texas Association of School Boards explains that a DOI designation gives districts local control to customize a plan for either a level of school, grade level or a single campus. They can implement practices similar to charter schools, including exemptions from rules governing a school start date, the 90 percent attendance rule, class-size ratios and teacher appraisal requirements, among others.
The particulars of a custom plan do not have to be approved by the TEA, but a district is accountable to its plan particulars.
“(The DOI) allows districts to de-professionalize the teaching profession by allowing uncertified teachers to teach students,” Santos said. “Its exemptions make room for larger class sizes. It lengthens the school year to open up the opportunity for more STAAR test preparation.”
Cruz, who also taught in HISD for 10 years, said the designation is something the board has considered in the past. She said the COVID-19 pandemic was not the driving force for pursuing the designation, but instead a reminder of its importance. According to Cruz, 90 percent of districts in Texas already have the designation, mostly because of the start date flexibility.
“This crisis has exacerbated the inequities among student groups,” Cruz said. “For too long the way we do school hasn’t worked. The business of the board is to have long-term vision and long-term goals.”
Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said he wished the time being spent on a formal assessment of a DOI would instead be spent with stakeholders on the year-round option, or what he likes to call the 11-month option.
“(With) not just the focus on starting earlier but the shift to three- or four-week blocks,” Capo said, stating the flexibility would help with any closures mandated by COVID-19.
Capo said he is “a bit skeptical” about the DOI and the ability it gives the district to circumvent state law and policy.
“With these exemptions through DOI there will be less public oversight on a district that needs as many eyes on its budget and policies as ever,” Santos said, noting recent investigations into HISD by the TEA and FBI.
Cruz said she sees the benefit in HISD exploring all avenues and likes the customization that a DOI plan would allow. Exemptions to the district’s start date, the 90 percent attendance requirement, and the certification for Career and Technical Education teachers are the ones the board said it would like to assess. Things like waivers for larger class sizes would not be in the plan.
While Capo said the earlier start date is not as problematic, the teacher certification exemption of a DOI plan is, especially since he said there were only four CTE positions that HISD couldn’t fill.
“We know of multiple ways for people to offer industry experience (and) meet state certification,” Capo said.
He said that while HISD has said the waiver would only be for CTE teachers, he hopes it would not later be extended to other teachers.
As for the 90 percent attendance for class credit exemption, Capo said the argument that kids should not have to spend time in a class where they already know the material doesn’t hold water when there are so many options for advanced students, like honors and Advanced Placement classes.
“Teachers are already under pressure to pass on kids who they believe aren’t ready, (and) this will escalate that pressure,” he said.
The process to become a DOI starts with a public hearing – to be held within 30 days of the board vote – and then goes to a committee of superintendent and trustee appointees by mid-June for more evaluation. It has to be passed by a two-thirds vote by both the District Advisory Committee and the board of trustees.
Cruz said she will seek other ways to gather community input, too, perhaps through a survey.
“We will be listening to the community,” she said.
Santos said she will also continue to engage and educate the community.
“We received so much pushback (from) teachers,” Santos said. “There is no evidence that a DOI helps kids.”