Photo by Jeff Chiu, AP

With report cards coming out for students in several area ISDs, many teachers, school administrators and parents are concerned about student failing rates and questioning how to move forward with instruction — in-class or virtual — with the coronavirus pandemic seemingly not going anywhere anytime soon.

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During the current school year’s first grading period, the percentage of students from the region’s largest school districts who failed at least one class were two, three or even four times higher than previous semesters. This unprecedented Houston-area failure rate, which includes almost 50% of middle and high school students earning at least two Fs, has districts expecting to see graduation rates plummet and summer school attendance skyrocket.

Expected also are more active calls for support systems to accommodate students who have fallen behind, whether from missed classes, unfinished assignments, issues with distance learning or a combination thereof.

“Kids know what they need to do in order to be counted present and pass some of their courses, but lack of engagement is the major concern,” said Grenita Lathan, HISD’s interim superintendent of the state’s largest district where 42% of students failed two or more classes during the first report card period.

Dr. Grenita Lathan

That’s an 11% jump from previous years, according to Lathan, who is not alone in sounding the alarm. Similar concerns can be heard coming out of Alief.

“Our internal failure rates — not (standardized) tests, just our teachers teaching, grading, assessing kids — are like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers told the Houston Chronicle. In Alief ISD, almost 50% of students made at least one F this year.

Aldine, Cy-Fair and Spring ISDs are also singing very similar blues, with administrators recognizing that the failure rates reflect the near impossible dance school districts, teachers, students and parents are involved in, trying to remain COVID-free while having successful educational outcomes.

The challenges and frustrations are certainly not lost on parents.

Rhonda Flakes-Preston feels caught in a catch-22, nervous about multiple students and staff testing positive for COVID-19 at her child’s school, yet not enthused by the prospect her school district may eliminate virtual learning after December.

“Teachers have seen a decline in grades for students who are learning virtually due to lack of engagement and teachers are spread thin trying to do both Zoom and daily check-in verifications by 7 a.m. for online students,” she said.

Flakes-Preston asserts that some teachers have simply decided not to conduct online classes, leaving virtual students out of the learning loop.

MIXED RESULTS

Pamela Gray, mother of a high school senior and sixth grader, was initially disappointed in Ft. Bend ISD’s online approach in March, but says by fall the district had a good plan in place. Though Gray’s two sons are thriving academically, and returned to in-person learning in October, she still has concerns.

“Communication is down and I never seem to know what is happening next. I hear from both kids about many changes being made with this teacher or that one being pulled to help out, and some doubling up to virtual classes as well. I even question why my youngest never has homework…,” she said.

“The interaction and overall synergy at schools have been upset and everyone is stressed, parents included. I sense we will move back to a virtual-only platform soon.”

Teachers like Denise Johnson and Kam Thomas are feeling the weight of the current educational and health challenges.

“In my district, we have been using Zoom and face-to-face (F2F), since August,” said Johnson. “It’s a lot for a teacher to have to do both at the same time. Either the classroom students benefit and the Zoom students suffer, or vice-versa. It’s a no-win situation either way, for the students.

Johnson said some online students do not log in, yet their absence is viewed by administrators as the teacher’s fault. She also views current attendance and social distancing policies as laughable.

“Even if students don’t attend class, as long as they complete their work before 11:59 p.m. that day, they are counted as being present for that day. Makes no sense, but okay.

“As for COVID, I thought the students had to be 6 feet apart while in the classroom. That I found out today, isn’t true. As long as they have a divider between them [think plexiglass], they can sit next to each other, which in my opinion, doesn’t protect anyone from anything…We’re stretched thin, walking a thin line, without knowing exactly what to do. We need help, and lots of it.”

Educator Kam Thomas was more to the point with her assessment, which focused on state lawmakers.

“[The Texas Legislature] cares nothing about students and teachers, and they are still testing students.”

State and federal lawmakers, led by President Donald Trump, threatened to hold federal education dollars hostage from states that did not offer in-person classes.

These fall 2020 reflections have parents, teachers and administrators nervous about short- and long-term impacts on all students, but especially students classified as high-need.

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Texas goes against full online move

As coronavirus cases began to surge in early-to-mid November, school districts nationally, including those in Detroit, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Minneapolis, chose to “retire” in-person classes.

The response in Texas was to stay the course with schools offering a choice between in-person and online learning, placing the Lone Star State in position that ran counter to the growing wave.

But as November’s initial surge worsens daily, with new infections, hospitalizations and deaths approaching and even surpassing, in some places, spring and summer numbers, Texas schools are holding pat on the position to remain open, to a mixed reception from teachers and K-12 parents.

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PARENT & TEACHER RESPONSES

“My son attends high school in CyFair ISD. In spite of all the intricate plans for a safe return to in-person learning, every single day I receive an email saying students have tested positive on campus. It’s pretty harrowing because I know that for every kid exposed, there are at least 20 acquaintances, including parents, grandparents and immuno-compromised others who are also exposed and in danger. It’s time to shut it down again and buckle down until we get a handle on this virus.” — Sharon Watkins Jones

“My daughter attends high school in Katy ISD and has the option of attending school virtually all-year or in person. She chose to attend virtually as a precaution to being exposed to COVID-19. We feel this was a wise choice as her school had to shut down temporarily due to massive outbreaks within the school. She is also a student athlete and her sports season was cut short due to rising cases on her team. I am quite pleased with her academic progress via virtual learning. She is in tune with her assignments and has seen an increase in her GPA since she started virtual learning back in March. It is my belief that virtual learning provides a focus-intensive environment on studies and reduces the fear of exposure and lack of concentration.” — Dionne Glover Smith

“Our district has offered the option of in-person or virtual learning since early October. The planning and roll-out were both poor and resulted in teachers across grade levels and subjects having to teach both in-person and virtually simultaneously. Kids in the classroom and on Zoom, during the same class periods, all day long. This is a wild disservice to students, and a true injustice for teachers, in my opinion. Importantly, it also displays a lack of creativity and adaptability in the face of both extreme adversity AND opportunity to drive long-overdue change.” — PN Kells, teacher and parent