As students begin to recover from yet another school disruption, this time related to unprecedented weather related power outages, it is a reminder of just how chaotic school has been for students and teachers over the last year. While the academic impact is significant, these crises also create serious social-emotional needs as well as very real physical needs such as access to fresh water and warm, safe housing.
One of the most significant challenges we face as a nation as we move with hope toward a “post-Covid” world is addressing the substantial and disproportionate student learning loss that occurred in the past eleven months and is sadly still occuring. Helping and supporting all students accelerate their learning to not only catch up but thrive in an ever-changing environment will need to be a primary focus of our city, state, and national recovery effort.
School systems have learned a lot since last March both about Covid-19 and the impact of virtual learning. Arming families with accurate information and key lessons learned is critical to helping everyone make informed decisions moving forward that meet the unique needs of families and students. A critical insight that researchers have concluded is that schools are not sources of wide scale COVID spread. Locally, the cumulative student positivity rate across Dallas County school districts is 1.2% overall since the start of the school year, with the active student positivity rate just 0.3% (two week window view starting from January 27th). As expected, the staff positivity rates are higher but still low at 7.4% cumulative overall and only 1.5% active. This is despite the fact that overall Dallas County cases remain high with the region in the ‘high-risk’ zone, indicating that schools are relatively much safer than the community overall.
In late February the CDC came out with new, science-based guidelines supporting a strong urge to reopen schools. The guidelines are supported by the growing body of evidence that schools can open safely when layered mitigation measures are deployed, like universal mask wearing. Even in communities with higher transmission rates, elementary students can attend at least some in-person learning. Weekly testing of students and staff to identify asymptomatic carriers opens up in-person learning for secondary students as well.
The data has also been clear that in-person learning results in stronger learning outcomes. Although students at the best full-time virtual schools can do as well as or better than those at traditional ones, most studies have found that full-time online learning does not deliver the academic results of in-class instruction.This means those students attending school in-person are more likely to catch up faster than their peers attending via virtual learning. While we know that a larger percentage of Black and Hispanic families are opting into virtual learning, and with valid reason to exercise such caution, the unfortunate reality is that virtual learning in the long-term will exacerbate the racial disparities in academic outcomes that already exist.
A factor that is just as important as academic outcomes, research has demonstrated what teachers and parents already knew - students’ social-emotional needs are greater than ever before. Resources, like access to counseling, facilitated peer groups, and the ability to connect with supportive friends and adults, are more easily accessible in the school building. Not to mention nutrition programming and other health-care supports like vision screening.
Add to this mix of factors the reality that due to long-standing inequities, many families of color may not completely trust systems, like school districts, with the health and safety of their children. School-based staff and district administrators have worked hard to try to make schools safer and ensure families have resources. Even this may not yet be enough to build trust in the efficacy of these efforts given the history of science and lived experience of so many families. The pandemic continues to provide an opportunity for system leaders to listen to the concerns and needs of families as we all chart new, innovative solutions for the years ahead.
And the challenges in vaccinating teachers and other front-line workers is obviously another factor that further complicates this entire conversation.
Yet getting students and educators back in our classrooms is only our starting line. The race to recover student learning loss will be a marathon that will likely play out over a period of years.
We have been encouraged by the efforts that school districts, leaders, and educators have taken to meet students where they are, including distribution of electronic devices, solutions to bridge the digital divide, and the distribution of other learning materials and meals throughout the pandemic.
Texas’ public schools are well positioned to implement new strategies to recover from the learning loss incurred thanks to many of the elements of House Bill 3, the historic school finance bill passed in the 2019 legislative session. Among many other things, House Bill 3 includes additional funding for schools that add additional school days in future years and rewards educators who are effective in growing academic achievement for their students. We applaud school districts across the state, including Garland ISD, Dallas ISD and Uplift Education in North Texas for taking advantage of the funding opportunities to expand their school calendars in an effort to provide academic enrichment opportunities to students and proactively plan for the new realities of our schools, educators and students.
Our ability to recover economically as a state is tied directly to the recovery of our public schools and students.