AUSTIN — Texas schools struggled this spring to abruptly shift from teaching students in classrooms to reaching them at home. Many students fell behind in the makeshift remote learning systems cobbled together when the pandemic hit.
Education officials vowed to do a better job come fall.
But as the new academic year ramps up, a patchwork system will still leave many students across Texas struggling to get an education. Some will be sharing computers with three or four siblings, their districts unable to muster more than one laptop per family. Others live in rural areas beyond the reach of broadband internet. Thousands of laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots remain on back order, and the state still hasn’t finished building out the system of virtual courses it is offering school districts.
Meanwhile, Texas has ordered school districts to resume grading students, taking attendance and teaching new material, pushing them to get academics as close to normal as possible after a chaotic, unfocused spring. The state standardized test is set to resume this academic year, along with ratings for schools and districts, though elementary and middle school students who fail the tests can still advance to the next grade.
Many superintendents are already begging the state not to think of this as a normal year. After all, the pandemic continues to ravage some communities and threatens to cycle back through others. They know that as the virus disproportionately sickens and kills Hispanic and Black Texans, the pandemic also may result in more students from those communities getting a lower-quality education online.
“Their parents want their children to learn. Whose fault is it that their home is located where the infrastructure [for internet access] is not there?” said Jeannie Meza-Chavez, superintendent of San Elizario Independent School District, a majority-Hispanic district where 65% of students have opted to stay online.
Outside of El Paso, a stone’s throw from the border with Mexico, many San Elizario families complained that the hotspots their district provided worked only sporadically. It’s common for the signal to be stronger on Mexico’s side of the border, and families struggle to find internet service providers who can reach them.
“They ended the year at a disadvantage. Instead of more money thrown into assessment, throw it into the area where you can fix the infrastructure for rural districts,” Meza-Chavez said.
The problem is not limited to rural districts: Experts say hotspots used to bridge the digital divide in southern Dallas are a short-term solution, with demand far exceeding availability and the price of monthly internet above what many residents can afford, The Dallas Morning News reported.
In the Rio Grande Valley, Blanca Alcaráz didn’t think internet access was a necessity for her family before March. She had a phone with a data plan, and her children spent most of their time in and around Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD anyway, where Alcaráz volunteered often.
Now, with her four children learning from home indefinitely, she can’t imagine going without the service. She bit the bullet and decided to pay Spectrum about $55 per month, which her one-income household can barely afford.
“If the price starts going up any further, I’ll have to cancel it,” she told The Texas Tribune in Spanish.
Community leaders in the Rio Grande Valley, where Covid-19 has filled morgues and hospitals, are rallying for high-speed internet in the region’s colonias, stretches of land along the border with Mexico that may lack services such as drinking water or sewage lines.
Alcaráz lives in Loma Linda, among broad swaths of Texas where a significant percentage of families do not have access to broadband. She knows other families, living farther from services such as phone lines, who may struggle to find an internet provider to cover them; federal data shows about 44% of households in the school district boundaries don’t have broadband subscriptions.
She applied for laptops from the district but isn’t sure how many she will receive, and the district has predicted they won’t arrive for weeks. When school starts Sept. 8, Alcaráz’s children may still be waiting for their laptops to arrive and sharing phones to complete assignments, while other students have had high-speed internet and personal laptops for years.
Texas did make improvements throughout the pandemic, with more school districts prioritizing direct contact between teachers and students and providing more educator training. The state is offering districts free access to a virtual learning system and contributing hundreds of millions through federal stimulus money to subsidize bulk orders of computers, hotspots and iPads for school districts. The state’s “Operation Connectivity” program, as of mid-August, has ordered 756,000 devices and 310,000 hotspots for more than half of Texas’ school districts.
But with supplier backlogs across the country, some may take as many as 14 more weeks to arrive, according to a mid-August estimate from the Texas Education Agency.
Last Tuesday, Killeen ISD Superintendent John Craft announced at a virtual school board meeting that he would need to open classrooms for in-person instruction a week earlier than planned. The Central Texas district was not reaching up to 7,000 students through virtual education, and a shipment of 16,000 iPads, processed through the state, possibly would not arrive until October. State guidance only allows schools to keep classrooms fully closed if all students have access to online education.
“We felt we had an adequate number of devices and hotspots. … Once we started distributing the devices, it became clear everybody needed one,” Craft told the school board and community members tuning in on their phones and computers. “In hindsight, could we have tried to problem-solve ahead of time? We did. Or we tried to.”
South Texas’ Mercedes ISD has distributed hundreds of Chromebooks and hotspots, some paid for with state help, but still can only afford to issue one per family — even for families with four or five children, according to Superintendent Carolyn Mendiola. About 70% of students want to continue learning online; the district is almost entirely Hispanic and low income.
“We know it’s gonna put a burden on some of these families, but at this point, with our finances, that’s what we’re able to purchase,” Mendiola said.
In Brazosport ISD, in the curve of the Gulf Coast, every student has had a school-issued laptop for about five years, from the smallest pre-K student to the oldest high schooler. Last spring, when school leaders closed classrooms, they had “plenty of Chromebooks” to check out to elementary school students, as well as 800 hotspots for those who needed internet access at home, said Superintendent Danny Massey. The district even ordered extra Chromebooks and hotspots that were subsidized through the state.
Even so, he worries about the 35% of students who have opted for online education in the first grading period, many in schools with more low-income students. “Remote learning is just going to increase the equity gap. The economically disadvantaged students are staying at home, which I know is not the best quality of education, despite the best efforts of our kids,” he said. “We’re just going to see that equity gap grow throughout the pandemic.”
While most Texas districts didn’t require teachers to deliver live virtual lessons to students last year, more are attempting that type of instruction this year, by having teachers broadcast their classroom lessons to kids sitting at home. Others are using a combination of prerecorded videos, self-guided assignments and paper packets to reach students learning remotely.
Texas was one of the states awarded a federal grant, almost $20 million, to train hundreds of thousands of teachers and build out new virtual courses for students in pre-K through 12th grade. But the grant came too late to set up the system by the start of the school year.
“We have shared with our superintendents [that the courses] are not going to be fully ready for this fall,” Lily Laux, TEA deputy commissioner of school programs, told The Washington Post this summer. “But we do hope to be caught up by Christmas.”
Alcaráz is hopeful that with Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD’s support, she will learn how to help her four children complete their lessons while their father is away working at an oil refinery during the week. In March, she missed the school district’s orientation for remote learning, unable to get connected to the virtual meeting.
Now, she has broadband and a single tablet, in addition to her older son’s cellphone, a massive improvement. She worries about her 7-year-old daughter, who is too shy to interact with her teachers across a screen. She also worries about her 16-year-old son, whom she fears is depressed, with too much time spent in front of a screen and without his friends.
She arranged space in her home where her children can dedicate themselves to learning without getting distracted. “Everything has been very, very different since the pandemic arrived,” she said in Spanish. “We weren’t prepared.”
Emma Platoff contributed to this report.