Skip to main content

This can’t be our new normal

When people ask me how my family is coping, I say we are fine. We’re in a house with plenty of food and reliable internet access. If my sons (a high schooler and a college student) need help with at-home learning, they meet with their teachers during Zoom office hours. Like everyone, we’re doing our best to get by. However, I also know the lessons are less engaging, less personalized and my kids can’t socialize the way they do at school. As a mother, I think to myself, this cannot become the “new normal.”

Lead image for this article

By Michelle Smith, PhD Raise Your Hand Texas

Vast numbers of students are completely off the grid. Just last week, San Antonio ISD reported they lost contact with 25% of their elementary school students since Spring Break. An April 8th national survey indicated 47% of teenage public school students haven’t “attended a single online or virtual class” since schools closed, as compared to 18% of private school students. African American and Hispanic students have been particularly affected. Compounding this problem, more than 2 million homes in Texas don’t have access to high-speed internet. Only 69% of rural areas have such access.

Despite the heroic efforts of local school districts and their teachers, the education of many of our children is severely lacking due to the current crisis. In a recent Texas Tribune article, one parent of a 14-year old special education student said there wouldn’t be any schooling going on in her house because her family is basically in “survival mode.” I believe this echoes what many are feeling in these strange times.

Prior to COVID-19, approximately 60% of our Texas public school students came from households with low socioeconomic status. More than 20% lived in poverty and relied on their school districts and local food pantries for meals. Many of these same families are newly unemployed, furloughed or working an essential job where they run the risk of bringing a frightening virus home to their kids. It’s difficult to imagine the mental and emotional strain they are enduring.

For these families especially — indeed, for the sake of our state — we must ensure our public schools emerge from this crisis stronger than before. Simply put, the current experiences of most Texas students today must not become the “new normal.”

At Raise Your Hand Texas, a simple phrase guides our daily work: The future of Texas is in our public schools. These words have always been significant to me, but recently they have taken on new meaning. Approximately 5.4 million public school students — the future of this great state — are waiting at home, and depending on all of us to get them back on track as quickly as possible.

While our schools sit empty, fascinating conversations about the future of education are unfolding. Some say we should not go back to the way things were; this new normal will force entire systems and industries to innovate, personalize and modernize. Perhaps there is truth to this idea. In some ways, Raise Your Hand Texas has even led the way toward innovation through programs like Raising Blended Learners.

But we must also recognize there are people who will take advantage of this crisis to push an ideological agenda. Some will proclaim that widespread expansion of full-time virtual schooling is the answer, despite stacks of research showing unsatisfactory results. The fact is, studies prove the special interaction between a teacher and a student, and among students, in a brick-and-mortar school simply cannot be replaced by video chats. Others will propose the state reallocate scarce education dollars to COVID-19 “scholarships,” “tax credits,” and other vouchers that don’t benefit our students or their public schools. Voucher programs, no matter what you call them, lack proof of efficacy and would leave many of our most vulnerable children behind.

I also know soon it will become frighteningly clear that students have missed a tremendous amount of learning this school year. Brace yourselves for some particularly gloomy data. It will take time, possibly years, to catch everyone up. Lawmakers would be wise to consider the implications of this lost time as they ponder future standardized tests and accountability ratings. We should seek a more comprehensive and holistic approach to accurately determining where students stand academically.

Now is the time to trust our school leaders and teachers. If we parents have learned one thing during COVID-19, it’s that teaching is both an art and science, and our educators deserve our highest respect and support. The school doors will open again, eventually. Our teachers will teach. And they will masterfully help our children find their way back to a “normal” that benefits all Texas students.