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Cy-Fair ISD

There are still a lot of students doing remote school

I’m actually a little surprised it’s this much.

Nathan is among 35,127 students in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and hundreds of thousands of students across Greater Houston whose parents opted to keep at home for the fourth and final grading period of the 2020-21 school year. Many of those students have not been inside a classroom since schools closed last March to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Nearly 250,000 students in 18 districts are learning from home in the final grading period, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of school district attendance data. Twenty-one districts responded to a Chronicle request for data, but only 18 were able to provide specific numbers for each grading period.

About 475,000 students in the 18 districts are back in schools. Among the 21 districts that responded to the Chronicle’s request, an average of about 75 percent of students were learning in person on campuses.

Those numbers vary widely from district to district. Only about 42 percent of Houston ISD students were back on campus by the fourth grading period, for example, while nearly 97 percent of students in Deer Park ISD have returned.

Statewide data from the TEA shows that districts that serve larger shares of Black and Hispanic students had fewer coming back for in-person classes. In districts where 10 percent or less of students were Black or Hispanic, about 80 percent of students returned, but in districts where 90 to 100 percent of students were black, less than half came back for face-to-face instruction.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of education leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said multiple studies have shown that Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, which often makes families of color more fearful of sending their students back to campuses.

“They’re more likely to know someone who’s gotten the virus, gotten seriously ill from the virus or died from the virus,” he said. “A lot of parents are just concerned that if kids go back to school in those communities, the impact could be very real and immediate for those families.”

Despite the varying attendance rates, one trend was clear among the 21 districts: More parents opted to send their children back for in-person instruction every time they were given the chance. The Texas Education Agency requires districts to give parents that opportunity each grading period.

Maybe if we were three months ago where we are now with vaccinations it would be different. Maybe if Texas had prioritized vaccinating teachers and school staff as part of the first wave it would be different. Who knows? The fact that the in-person attendance has ticked up every grading period suggests a correlation with the vaccine rate, but we can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, our kids have been back in school since January – in HISD, you have to make a selection every six weeks – and it’s been fine for them. The eighth grader informed us the other day that they can eat in the cafeteria now instead of having to have lunch at their desks – they’re limited to three at a table made for eight, but it’s still an improvement as far as she’s concerned.

I expect that the large majority of kids will be back in the classroom in the fall, but online learning will still be available to those who still want it. Most likely, anyway.

Houston ISD leaders plan to offer online-only classes to families that want them to start the 2021-22 school year — as long as state officials continue to provide funding for children enrolled in virtual instruction.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking Wednesday after her annual State of the Schools speech, said district leaders hope to bring as many students as possible back to classrooms by August while also remaining committed to an online-only option.

About 56 percent of HISD’s 197,000 students attended virtual classes as of February, largely due to health and safety concerns amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While Lathan pushed for choice Wednesday, she also warned that HISD families should expect one big change in 2021-22: educators no longer will be required to teach students in face-to-face and virtual classes at the same time. As a result, families should not expect to retain the same teacher if they switch between formats during the school year.

“Our teachers teaching simultaneously has been extremely difficult this year, and we cannot continue to go on in that manner for the next school year,” Lathan said. “That’s what will look different. The option will be there, but we need to have teachers teaching in one mode.”

As the story notes, this is dependent on the next Superintendent not deciding to change direction, and on the TEA being willing to continue funding schools for online learning at the same rate. I think this may be a mostly moot point if we’re at 70%+ vaccination rate by August, and even more so if kids start getting vaccinated, but we’ll see. I think basically everyone will benefit from getting back to the classroom, but people still have to feel safe about it. Things really would be different if we had prioritized safety from the beginning.

Can we please not screw the schools right now?

Really, we don’t have to do this.

Across the Houston region and Texas, school districts that lost enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic are facing a drop in state funds starting in January if the Texas Education Agency or state lawmakers do not act.

Since the virus began sweeping across the state and nation last March, forcing schools to close, the TEA has given districts several grace periods in which it provided them the same funding they would have received in normal times. To date, that has provided a lifeline to districts that otherwise would have seen their state revenues plunge due to lower-than-expected student enrollments.

The current grace period, which the TEA calls a “hold harmless guarantee,” ends Dec. 31.

The Texas Legislature in 2019 allocated enough money to fund schools at their current levels until the end of the school year, but the TEA has remained mum on whether it will extend the hold harmless guarantee until then. Without another extension for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, some local district finance officials worry they will be faced with two bad options: dip into and potentially deplete their reserve funds to keep their districts operating through spring, or lay off teachers and staff to make ends meet.

For Houston-area districts, which began the school year missing more than 20,000 students, the financial ramifications could run into the tens of millions of dollars. For example, Alief ISD could lose nearly $40 million after enrollment fell 3,500 short of initial estimates.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which has 2,364 fewer students now than at the end of last year, estimates it could lose $29 million. Aldine ISD could “easily” miss out on $20 million after its enrollment fell 4,000 students shy of projections, and Pasadena ISD would face a shortfall of nearly $14 million due to a 2,261-student enrollment drop.

Houston ISD did not respond to a request for comment, but the district began the year with 13,000 fewer students than expected.

There is no one answer for why students have dropped off schools’ radars. Some may have moved with family in search of work. Parents of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students may wait to enroll them until school operations are more normal. Others may have been kept at home by parents waiting for COVID infection levels to improve before sending their kids back to school.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told the Chronicle’s editorial board in November the agency “already provided unprecedented flexibility to offer remote learning, and with it, full funding.”

“However, we know that certain districts face challenges because of significant enrollment declines, and we are working to ensure that our schools and teachers receive the additional financial support we need,” Morath said.

The lack of a concrete assurance that districts statewide will continue to receive funding at current levels has many on edge, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“Everybody right now is holding their breath, hoping the state will come through with hold harmless,” Brown said. “But they’re also starting to look at what will happen if that doesn’t come through — are they going to have to do layoffs, and if so, how extensively?”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Cypress, said while enrollments remain lower-than-predicted across the state, the situation is improving as the school year plays out and kids come back. He also said he expects more students to return as COVID-19 vaccines begin to be distributed.

Returning funding to the state’s attendance-based formula creates an incentive for districts to keep looking for students who have not shown up.

“You have to balance all these needs, because we have to keep the public school system making sure they make every effort to find students,” he said. “Otherwise children are left behind.”

I mean, look. Schools and school districts and teachers – and parents and students – are contending with a lot this year. They’re doing the best they can under extreme circumstances. While the state of Texas is also under financial constraints, this is exactly the sort of situation for which the Rainy Day Fund – also known as the Economic Stabilization Fund – was created, to smooth out unexpected downturns in revenue and tide things over till they rebound. And for the millionth time, I will note that our state Republican leadership could be loudly demanding that our two Republican Senators support a COVID relief package that gives financial support to state and local governments, including school boards, that are suffering through the effects of the pandemic. There are many things we could do that do not involve putting all the burden on the school districts. We just have to choose to do them.

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Superintendents leading 10 Houston-area school districts penned a letter this week opposing Harris County’s recommendations for reopening campuses, arguing that face-to-face instruction should resume earlier than health officials suggest.

In their two-page letter, the superintendents say guidance released last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah will keep campuses closed too long, denying valuable in-person class time to students. Superintendents are not required to follow the county recommendations, though the guidance serves as a key document in the debate over when to restart in-person classes.

“It is clear that we all have the same goal, which is to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible, the superintendents wrote to Shah on Monday. “We thank you for the continued efforts of your departments on behalf of Harris County. With that said, we believe that the metrics outlined in the plan you have provided are not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”

The superintendents represent Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs. Combined, the districts serve about 457,000 students.

In response to the letter, Harris County Public Health officials said in a statement that the organization “has made it abundantly clear that current indicators are not safe to resume in-person activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

As the new school year approached and superintendents debated when to resume in-person classes, some education leaders called on county health officials to offer guidance on reopening campuses.

Hidalgo and Shah followed through by producing several public health benchmarks that should be met before in-person classes resume at the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 people in a campus. The metrics included cutting the 14-day rolling average of new daily cases to under 400, bringing the test positivity rate under 5 percent and ensuring less than 15 percent of patients in ICU and general hospital beds are positive for COVID-19.

Harris County likely remains at least several weeks away from meeting those metrics. For example, the county recently reported a rolling daily average of about 1,250 new cases and a test positivity rate of 16 percent.

In their letter, the superintendents only mentioned two specific health benchmarks with which they disagreed. The school leaders wrote that the recommendations would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing.”

However, the guidance specifies that districts could start to reopen and ramp up to the lesser of 50 percent building capacity of 1,000 people on campus even without a “widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure.” County officials did not detail what qualifies as a medical countermeasure in their written guidance, and they did not respond to written questions Tuesday.

See here for the background. As a reminder, Judge Hidalgo and Harris County have limited authority here – ultimately, if these districts decide to open, they can. It’s only when outbreaks occur that the county will have more power to step in. Humble ISD has already opened, the others have plans to have at least some students back by September 16. As the story notes, other districts including HISD, Aldine, Alief, and Spring did not sign this letter, but it was not clear if they had been invited to sign it or not.

I get the concern from these districts, and there’s room for honest disagreement. I don’t have any particular quarrel with their approach, though I personally prefer the more cautious path. As Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter notes in these two Twitter threads, the county now meets three out of seven criteria for reopening, and is trending in the right direction for the others. There’s no accepted national standard for what is “safe” to reopen – that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, of course – so one could argue that Harris County is being overly restrictive. Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of schools and universities that brought in students and then immediately suffered outbreaks that forced closures. Bad things are going to happen until this thing is truly under control, and it is not going to be under control any time soon while Donald Trump is President. That’s the reality, and all the choices we have are bad. Which ones are the least bad is still an open question.