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The most Jessica Elbel’s kids have ventured out of the house since the pandemic began is to play in the yard or sit in the back seat of the car while their mom or dad picked up a curbside grocery order.
It hasn’t been easy, but Elbel and her husband, Donald, have gone to great lengths to shield their family from COVID-19 exposure. Donald Elbel went so far as to leave his job to help their 7- and 9-year-old kids with virtual schooling.
So when she got the message from the school district earlier this month saying that in-person classes would be mandatory, Jessica Elbel began to panic.
“The District will transition back to 100% in-person learning. The last day of remote learning will be Friday, October 16th,” said the update from Clay Rosenbaum, superintendent of the Blanco Independent School District Superintendent. The message was sent to the families of the roughly 1,000 students enrolled in the small school district in Texas Hill Country. It was posted a week before students were to return.
As the numbers of people infected and hospitalized by the virus tick back up across the state, dozens of Texas school districts eliminated the option for remote learning and forced students, faculty and staff to return to the classroom, with few exceptions. The number is rapidly growing.
For most families afraid of returning, school districts provided three options: home school, switch districts or enroll in an online school. But families say these options aren’t easily accessible on such short notice and can be cost prohibitive.
“I don’t appreciate being put in a position where I feel like I don’t have a choice,” Jessica Elbel said.
School experts say gradually more Texas students will be brought back into the classroom. So far the school districts to make the change are smaller and some serve more rural populations.
“It’s becoming more and more common. Geographically it’s focused in places where they’re able to do it and feel like they’re operating safely,” said Joy Surratt Baskin, legal services director of the Texas Association of School Boards.
State data on transmission in public schools shows that just over 9,700 students reported positive COVID-19 cases, but the data is limited and full of gaps.
District superintendents pointed to inconsistent attendance, subpar student engagement and lower grades for students taking virtual classes compared with their in-person counterparts.
At Lubbock-Cooper ISD, only 40% of online learners in elementary school and 10% of online learners in high school regularly attended classes and turned in assignments, Superintendent Keith Bryant said. About 55% of remote students at Blanco ISD and 70% of online students at Roosevelt ISD — 8 miles east of Lubbock — were failing, according to the superintendents.
Gary Martel, Moody ISD superintendent, said school officials made calls or did home visits to households with students who were falling behind or not logging on to class. The roughly 690-student district in Central Texas mandated that students return to in-person school by Oct. 13 — but it only applied to remote learners with poor attendance, those with a lack of instructional engagement or those who were in danger of failing a course.
Superintendents said the labor and educational sacrifices aren’t worth it for a program that only served about 10% to 20% of the total student population.
“If our remote learners would have stepped up and held up their end of the bargain, I think we would have made it work, but it’s not worth it to risk our staff and burn them out. Any school district that is OK with 70% of their students failing and doesn’t do something drastic, shame on them for doing that,” said Superintendent Dallas Grimes of Roosevelt ISD, which serves about 1,060 students and ended remote learning in late September.
Brent Hawkins, superintendent of Livingston ISD in East Texas, said in an email that the online learning option was “never intended” to be a long-term program. The 4,000-student district required kids return in person Oct. 13; parents were notified on the first of the month.
Superintendents also said teachers are overworked because they have to tailor instruction both for virtual students and in-person class.
But some teachers don’t want to return to the classroom.
“We fear these safety violations and the elimination of the virtual learning option for students is endangering the health and safety, even potentially the lives, of many students, educators and their families,” said Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association.
Some districts are also requiring that teachers return to campus, even in some cases in which most students chose remote learning. Teachers said school administrators unfairly expect them to put their lives in danger. Several districts are trying to accommodate teachers with health conditions who want to work from home, but they are largely expected to return to work in-person.
More than 2 million Texas public school students are already attending school in person, which is still less than half of the 5.5 million students total — but the number doubled from the start of the school year.
Every Texas school district is required to offer an in-person option if they want to get state funding unless they have a state-approved waiver due to high levels of community spread of the coronavirus. The vast majority — including Texas’ most populous school districts — are operating hybrid models.
But families in districts that are cutting remote learning have been frustrated by the short notice and lack of options.
“The district has really abandoned the 10% of us that are remote learning,” Jessica Elbel said. “There is a sense that they view us as a small group of dissenters and they just kind of want us to go away.”
After considering expensive online schooling alternatives that she couldn’t afford, she said she will home-school her kids.
There will be some exceptions for kids with medical conditions.
Jennifer Gradel’s twins are medically fragile, so when Livingston ISD eliminated remote learning, she was granted special permission to keep them home. She asked for the same exemption from in-person school for her high school-aged son, fearing he could expose his siblings. That request was denied.
“Before you sent that email on the first [of the month] to all of these parents, you should have gotten your medically fragile students and their families taken care of,” Gradel said.
District superintendents said nearly all of the remote families who withdrew from the district chose to home school. But parents say that’s expensive, too.
That includes Kasey Evans, whose 7-year-old attended Livingston ISD. When the remote option went away this month, Evans opted for home school and had to return her son’s school-provided Chromebook and Wi-Fi hotspot. Evans was let go from her job in September because of the coronavirus pandemic and had to get help from her mom to replace the borrowed technology.
Similarly, Rachelle Willgren of Blanco ISD spent $200 on workbooks and a home-school curriculum. Willgren thought remote learning would last at least until after the holidays.
“If I had known that the school district was gonna do this, I never would have enrolled them this year,” Willgren said.
The Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas State Teachers Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.