Thousands of Texans stopped learning during the pandemic
HOUSTON (KTRK) -- When school districts across Texas went to virtual learning in March, Claudette Berry made sure her five grandchildren knew they weren’t just getting an extra long spring break.
She woke them up early, made them put on their uniforms and fed them breakfast before school started for the day.
In the spring though, instead of driving them to campus, the children shared laptops as they tried to log onto their lessons for the day. The oldest got a computer from school. Two of the children went weeks without a device and when they finally got one, they still had to share with a fourth sibling.
13 Investigates found Texas schools lost track of nearly 500,000 students in the spring.
In Houston, nearly 1 in every 4 children weren't engaged in online learning or couldn't be found.
By Ted Oberg and Sarah Rafique
Published: Aug. 17, 2020
No or lost engagement or contact | Engagement recovered | Engaged
Houston ISD student engagement
“This 23 percent are kids living in single-parent households; that are living in low-income housing,” Houston ISD board member Kathy Blueford-Daniels told 13 Investigates’ Ted Oberg. "These are still our children. Our income and zip code should not determine the destination for our children and in order to ensure that that's not happening or that our children have an opportunity in life, their adult life, we've got to be engaged. We've got to be the drum majors."
13 Investigates reached out to Houston ISD for an interview, but the district was not available.
About 92 percent of Houston ISD students who lost engagement are economically disadvantaged, according to an analysis of preliminary data the TEA provided 13 Investigates. The data is still in the verification process and should be finalized next month.
A majority of the students who lost engagement were younger learners, like Tymirah.
“Think about a K through first- or second-grade student who's in their formative years of reading instruction or math instruction, and this is going to have a long-term effect,” said Duncan Klussmann, a former Texas public school superintendent who now teaches at the University of Houston. “What we're going to have to do is rethink what school looks like when it goes back to somewhat normal and make sure that we're providing the opportunity for students to be able to catch up and learn those skills.”
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said the state has spent millions in taxpayer funding to improve the at-home learning experience and he expects more students to be engaged this year.
“It better not look the way it did last April,” Bonnen told Oberg during an interview in mid-July. “The districts weren't ready for that. There's no reason they could have or should have, or would have been, but no, it better be better. We have invested significantly to make it better.”
During the 2019-20 school year, 78,296 students were considered homeless, according to the Texas Education Agency. More than 2.7 million Texas students were identified as at risk of dropping out of school.
Berry said she knows some of those children didn’t get the same opportunity to succeed.
“They fell behind and my heart just really goes out to them,” she said. “I know some that once school closed down, that was it. They didn't get a device. They weren't encouraged by the parent or the grandparent to keep going. They just stopped, everything stopped.”
Now, Blueford-Daniels said, it’s especially important to make sure those students don’t fall further behind.
“What scares me is that people have waited through the summer and have not engaged their children all summer and now starting Sept. 8 we'll actually go online and those grades will count,” Blueford-Daniels said. “We can't afford for our children to be left out.”
That means once a student gets a device educators and parents need to make sure the child is actually logged on, attending classes, paying attention and doing their homework.
“Education is their way out of the zip code,” said Blueford-Daniels, who represents the Greater Fifth Ward, where she grew up. “We cannot just depend on HISD and the teachers and the support staff and the transportation workers to engage our children.”
‘Education is their way out of the zip code’
'At some point, that child is going to lose hope.'
Still, with so many families struggling financially and becoming more transient, both Blueford-Daniels and Klussmann said finding some of the children who disappeared during the spring to get them reengaged is challenging.
“I talked to one superintendent where their biggest struggle was every phone number that they had for many students wasn't good or had changed or they've moved and they're no longer at that address,” Klussmann said. “That's the reality of our world; that we work within schools. There are many students who are very mobile, who we do not have good, solid information on to be able to follow through the system.”
Even if educators are able to locate those students, the amount of learning they lost during the spring and summer will be difficult to overcome, Berry said.
“At some point, that child is going to lose hope. When you have to struggle to come back after six months of no learning, that child just may lose hope,” Berry said. “The parent may not have the hope to give them, so it's going to be tough. It's really going to be tough on some of those children.”
- Claudette Berry
In Texas, students are required to attend at least 90 percent of their classes in order to receive credit and be promoted to the next grade. Students in third through 12th grade also take an annual state standardized test, some of which require a passing grade in order to graduate.
At the onset of the pandemic, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath granted waivers to students who didn’t meet the attendance requirements and waived standardized testing.
This year, teachers will be required to track attendance daily based on the type of instruction they offer.
Districts who saw the biggest drop off in engagement will need to boost their engagement levels this upcoming year if they want to maintain the same level of funding.
“Attendance is critical because in the State of Texas, your funding is tied to your attendance,” Klussmann said. “In this new world that we're in of COVID, whether a student is … doing virtual education or they're face to face, we have to document their time and their attendance because you get your funding based on attendance.”
'Attendance is critical'
really replace that,” Klussmann said. “It's much harder to assess their learning as they're doing virtual than it is when you have that face to face contact.”
Klussmann said school leaders often start thinking about planning their next school year in January. But, the TEA didn’t announce its first back-to-school guidance until July 7, which put districts six months behind.
“Planning for our normal school year, if it's going to run well and open well, it takes a lot of time and effort. We have leaders who are now really planning for three school years: face to face, virtual and some level of hybrid at some point,” Klussmann said. “They're having to plan for three school years in one and that's a major challenge.”
Some districts told 13 Investigates they already decided on how to start the year, but were forced to tweak their plans after the late guidance from the TEA. Dozens of districts we surveyed in July said they would have liked more guidance from the state.
Klussmann said he would have liked the decision of what schools will look like in the fall to have been made in May or June.
“It's so important in this uncertain world to create clarity and consistency around what's going to happen to schools and I know this is a very difficult situation and it's changing. There's so much information out there, some good, some bad, but the reality is we've taken a long time across our country to settle in what is the expectation for schools,” Klussmann said. “We just recently settled into who has the authority in Texas to make that decision.”
'An idle mind is the devil's workshop'
As she drove through the neighborhood she represents as a HISD school board member, Blueford-Daniels saw children gathered outside during the spring.
“I would always stop and tell them, ‘you guys need to be engaged in something, some type of learning activity,’ because I know, as we all know, if we don't keep their mind regulated or engaged, then they tend to drift off and an idle mind is the devil's workshop,” Blueford-Daniels said.
Parents who have questions about the back-to school can call Houston ISD’s hotline from 7 a.m. to7 p.m. Monday through Friday at 713-556-4636. Operators can answer questions about the district’s online learning platform in English and Spanish.
Comp-U-Dopt is offering a computer lottery for students who need technology for the upcoming year. Click here for more information.
first four weeks of school if every student has connectivity. The online only transition period can be extended four additional weeks.
“Students who cannot participate in remote learning at home because of lack of broadband internet access or devices must still have access to on-campus instruction during this time,” according to the TEA guidelines.
Still, experts agree that it takes more than just getting children connected with devices. At Houston ISD, parents have until Sept. 4 to complete an online “Parent Introduction to Virtual Learning” course that is aimed at helping parents understand the learning platform the district is using.
Berry said getting her five grandchildren connected with their teachers in the spring was a struggle. She hasn’t been to school in 40 years and felt like she had to learn many different platforms. It wasn’t any easier for their grandchildren.
“It would be confusing sometimes for her because if the science teacher used (one program), the math teacher used something else, so she would get confused,” Berry said.
Once children are plugged in, Blueford-Daniels said virtual learning requires extra effort from parents.
“They need to make sure that that child is not just turning on the computer, but they need to sit there at some point and review the lessons with the children,” Blueford-Daniels said.
When her children were little, Blueford-Daniels said she encouraged them to read billboard and street signs - anything to exercise their minds. And with students getting what could feel like a months-long summer break, she said it’s even that much more important for parents and grandparents to think of creative ways to continue to keep students learning while at home.
“We’ve got to be that village for our children,” Blueford-Daniels said. “And we've got to think outside the box … We can't wholeheartedly depend on the district to make decisions that are going to affect our children long term. We've got to be engaged as parents and grandparents.”
Even though Berry’s 6-year-old granddaughter Tymirah lost engagement with her class in the spring, the family made sure to keep her mind learning with age-appropriate books and educational activities. Still, she’s worried about the impacts it will have on her when she’s back at school.
“She missed a lot of learning time. She missed a lot of reading time with her teacher. She missed a lot of writing time,” Berry said. “I am concerned about her. I am, but I'm hoping what we did over the summer and what we did to help her after everything closed down will keep her maybe at a place where she can catch up.”
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Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Houston ISD board member
'Our income and zip code should not determine the destination for our children. ... We've got to be the drum majors.'
INTERACTIVE: Want to know how many students were engaged at your child's school? Search the map below.
Claudette Berry reads a book with her granddaughter, Tymirah, 6, on Aug. 12 at her Northeast Houston home.
“I told them just because school is not open and you're not physically going to the building, you still have to get up just like you're going to school,” said Berry, who lives in Northeast Houston. “We had to figure out times for each one of them to get on. Sometimes one would go into 7 o'clock at night just trying to do schoolwork because they had to share.”
Berry’s fifth granddaughter, Tymirah, 6, never got a computer and instead of sharing a device with her siblings, she got a LeapFrog educational device to learn on her own. Outside of connecting with her classmates once or twice throughout the pandemic, she went the last nine weeks of school without attending class.
Statewide data shows nearly 500,000 Texas students lost contact with their teachers or were not engaged in lessons in the spring when the COVID-19 pandemic forced social distancing and at-home learning.
In Houston alone, 23.6 percent of students were not engaged in online learning, according to data provided by the Houston Independent School District. Teachers lost contact with 10,245 students and 38,392 more were not engaged.
"We can't wholeheartedly depend on the district to make decisions that are going to affect our children long term. We've got to be engaged as parents and grandparents.”
Houston ISD board member
When districts shifted to online learning in the spring, Blueford-Daniels said the virus’ impacts unveiled the hurdles some children have to overcome just to get an education and have a fair chance at life.
“With our failing schools and the pipeline to prison continuously occurring, it's almost like it's a breeding ground for our children,” Blueford-Daniels said. “We have to keep them engaged. We have to keep their mind motivated.”
With less than a month until Houston ISD starts the school year online on Sept. 8, Blueford-Daniels said she’s still getting calls from parents who don’t have devices so their children can learn from home - students who have been without educational engagement since March.
Houston ISD has 280 schools, home to about 210,000 students. On Aug. 13, the district’s school board approved a $54.6 million amendment, which includes spending $31 million to purchase devices and wireless hotspots to help close the digital divide and make sure all students are equipped for online learning.
The district says it has already provided 76,362 devices to students since the pandemic began and plans to distribute an additional 22,750 devices next month.
On July 17, Morath announced a transition period where districts can offer online only instruction for the
“They're having to plan for three school years in one and that's a major challenge.”
Former superintendent, University of Houston professor
Districts can choose to start the 2020-21 year with traditional face-to-face learning on campus or two different remote learning options: asynchronous and synchronous.
During synchronous learning, students will log onto an online platform in real-time as teachers present their lessons for the day. Asynchronous allows students to learn and complete their lessons on their own time, without the real-time element of a classroom setting.
In addition to getting kids to show up to online classes, another challenge teachers will face is knowing if their students understand the material.
Whenever he was a teacher, Klussmann said the best indicator that a student was learning wasn’t based on a test score. It was being able to look at his 30 or so students and see the expressions on their faces.
“Are they getting this concept or are they not getting this concept? Do I need to go deeper here? Can I move on here, so you just can't replace that. You can get some sense of that, but you can't
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