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All around Lourdes Flores there are signs that her border town of Mission is returning to pre-pandemic life: More restrictions have been lifted, she’s no longer working strictly from home, and most people in her household have been vaccinated.
However, there’s one sign Flores is slow to embrace: Her daughter, Jazmin, will return to in-person learning for her sophomore year this fall in the La Joya Independent School District.
“If a choice is given, then I’ll keep her at home for as long as I can until I know that it's really safe to be out there,” Flores said, adding that she worries current COVID-19 infection rates don't paint an accurate picture of the virus’ spread, as her daughter’s district plans to move ahead with a full return to campus.
Remote learning soon won’t be an option for many parents in the fall, as the Texas Education Agency pushes districts toward returning to in-person learning, citing data showing that it leads to better learning outcomes compared to remote instruction. The agency has announced that state funding for remote-only options won’t be available for the upcoming school year, prompting many districts to announce a return to 100% in-person instruction.
Despite this, the return to in-person learning is not a simple transition for some parents — particularly parents of students of color — after a year in which they say their children reaped some benefits from remote-only learning.
When districts gave parents a choice between in-person and remote classes during the past year, according to data from the Texas Education Agency, students of color in Texas returned to in-person learning at lower rates than their white counterparts.
As of January, about 56% percent of Texas students on average returned to on-campus instruction during the school year, including 75% of white students, about 53% of Black students, 49% of Hispanic students and 31% of Asian students.
In an emailed statement, the TEA cited “Covid-19’s disproportionate economic and public health effect on communities of color” as a reason for the lower in-person attendance and engagement rates among students of color.
Experts say it’s necessary to consider the intersection of circumstances that could lead to such rates: Students may live in a multigenerational household and worry about infecting family members, or they could be tasked with extra responsibilities during the pandemic — such as taking care of siblings or supplementing family income — that make remote learning more conducive to their needs.
“There’s mostly quite a bit of fear and economic uncertainty. All of those things play a role in wanting to continue remote learning, said Hector Bojorquez, director of operations and educational practice at the Intercultural Development Research Association, a nonprofit that seeks to ensure equal opportunities for children in public education. “Everybody's lives [were] thrown into chaos during the past year. People whose lives are already precarious economically are even more frightened of taking certain risks.”
The disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color can also present a challenge for parents in deciding to let their child return to in-person learning, said Leann Smith, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s Department of Educational Psychology.
“We know that there were higher rates of COVID-related illnesses and death in those communities, so we are then putting the burden on parents for the most part to decide whether or not they want to risk further exposing their own community or their family to this virus,” Smith said.
Throughout the pandemic, a majority of coronavirus-related deaths in the state have been among Hispanic and Black Texans, who together comprise a little over 50% of the state’s population. As of late June, about 26% of Black Texans and about 32% of Hispanic Texans have been fully vaccinated, compared to about 38% of white Texans, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
For Stacey Smith, whose daughter is pregnant and contracted COVID-19 this past year while attending school in-person and participating in sports, an option for her child to learn remotely would put her more at ease.
“I feel like there should be options for parents that have kids that are at high risk instead of just saying ‘This is what it is,’ ” said Smith, who’s Hispanic and lives in Austin. In June, Austin ISD announced it would no longer be providing a virtual learning option for students.
Catering to social needs
For some parents, the desire to keep their children at home during the school year stemmed from some of the social challenges students may face in a school setting that can be unique to their race or identity.
Tonya Reyes-Dickerson, who lives in Springtown outside of Fort Worth, said that before the pandemic, going to class in person was a challenge for her 10-year-old transgender son, who in the past has been the target of bullying at school. Springtown ISD has announced it’s returning to full in-person learning this fall.
“Being in virtual [school], we don't have to worry about that,” Reyes-Dickerson said. “Our child is protected from any of those types of dangers.”
During a school year that started on the heels of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and a summer of protests against racial injustice and police brutality, Smith said that because they were home, many children of color were also able to have more substantial conversations with their families that acknowledged their cultural perspective. That doesn’t often happen in school, she said.
“The socialization that we would hope would happen in school but that research shows does not happen in school — the parents were able to create that space at home, which is good,” Smith said. “So there are some mental health benefits of [students] being protected from what we know is very negative, discrimination and microaggressive experiences.”
Lashonda Chavers said virtual learning has given her two daughters a much-needed reprieve from some difficult interactions in the public school system. For example, her youngest daughter told her that during a dissection of a sheep’s heart in science class, her teacher commented that it was Black people’s heritage to eat chitlins and Hispanic people’s heritage to eat menudo — both dishes made with animal organs.
“I think we did better, my children, my girls, did better” learning from home, said Chavers, 46, who is Black and Hispanic and whose daughters, a rising freshman and a rising senior, attend school in Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD outside of Dallas. “Their grades were just as good, and they were well adjusted, and they were happy, and they felt liberated.”
Her daughters’ school district has already announced that it will be returning to in-person learning with no online options for the upcoming school year. Chavers said she and her daughters aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 because of her “distrust in Western medicine.” And she’s nervous about them returning to the classroom in the fall.
“I think that all schools should provide hybrid courses for every child until this is over, or until we have such a good handle on it we haven't even heard of any COVID cases,” Chavers said.
The return to in-person learning
Learning loss during the pandemic has surpassed the usual decline associated with the summer months, according to the TEA. Between March 2020 and September 2020, students have lost an average of almost six months of learning, according to the TEA, with virtual learning students being “disproportionately affected.”
Newly-released standardized test results also show the percentage of remote learning students who met grade level expectations dropped significantly this past year, especially in math and reading.
For example, districts in which a quarter or more of the students were learning virtually saw a 32% drop in mathematics performance from 2019 to 2021. However, in districts where less than a quarter learned virtually, performance only dropped by 9%.
“Thankfully, from early on, Texas prioritized the availability of in-person instruction during this tremendously difficult year,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement. “When students come into Texas public schools, they are well-served by Texas educators — a fact that these scores confirm.”
In the plan that TEA submitted to the U.S. Department of Education that details how it intends to use federal stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan, the agency said that “African American and Hispanic students in Texas have experienced, in general, more lost instructional time due to absenteeism, lower student engagement, and have engaged more in remote learning than their peers of other races/ethnicities.”
The TEA said it “is actively working to address pandemic-induced learning loss,” and is overseeing the distribution of $18 billion in federal stimulus funds for public schools. In April, the state released $11.2 billion of the federal stimulus funds for public schools that were allocated to the state through the American Rescue Plan.
The recently released money requires that districts reserve 20% of their funds to address learning loss through strategies such as summer programs, after-school programs or extending the school year.
Kathy Rollo, superintendent of Lubbock ISD, said steps like those have helped students get back on track in her district, particularly through summer school programming to get children reacclimated to learning in person.
Some districts, such as Lubbock ISD, San Antonio ISD and Austin ISD, have said they opted to return to full in-person instruction for the upcoming school year because the Texas Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have helped to fund virtual school programs.
House Bill 1468 died as a result of House Democrats' walkout to stop the passage of a GOP priority voting bill. In a joint letter sent to Gov. Greg Abbott on June 16, 30 school districts, including San Antonio ISD and Austin ISD, called for virtual school funding to be added to the agenda for the Legislature’s special session, which starts this month.
Rollo said even if the bill had passed, Lubbock ISD would not have offered virtual instruction for Pre-K through eighth grade.
“We were interested in investigating the potential of having an online virtual school for our high school students who are older, are able to more self-navigate through their learning opportunities, but when that bill did not pass that really is not an option for our district at this point,” she said.