This week, Houston area Alief ISD Superintendent H.D. Chambers became the first (though likely not the last) Texas superintendent to announce that the 2020-21 school year would begin virtually for a period of three weeks. The Commit Partnership is proud to partner with the Houston-area school leader as he champions the Additional Days School Year on behalf of the Texas Impact Network. We spoke with him briefly about the challenges faced by his students in this time of uncertainty, and how he hopes to use tools such as the Additional Days School Year to better serve them.
You appear to be the first superintendent to publicly state that you will not start school with face to face classes. Can you talk about how you came to that decision?
There's three things that led me to this decision. The first is the health side of the issue and the actual virus spread. Currently, Harris County is a hot-bed for the virus spread and the positive cases are rising at an alarming rate. If you zero in around Harris County and the areas in which the most cases are being identified, many are in Alief. Two zip codes in my community have the highest rate of positive cases, and health officials [project] they will continue [to climb].
I have a community pattern of positive cases that are continuing to grow. My concern is that even if half of my students and half of my teaching staff were in a school, I am not confident that we can prevent the spread, regardless of safety measures in place. The possibility of the spread moving from a classroom, to a teacher, to a home is real. I believe this decision would contribute to the increasing number of cases in this area (Alief) and in Harris County. So it absolutely boils down to the numbers, the data that I see in our community about what to expect in the next 30 to 45 days. To me, it's a logical, reasonable conclusion.
The science and the data tells us that there is not as much reason to worry about students contracting the virus and the results of that health condition of the student. What concerns me is an asymptomatic student having it, and then passing it along to either another student, who then takes it home, unknowingly, [and] gives it to their mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, or impacts the teacher, who brings it home, [and] impacts husband, wife, children, et cetera. We also have examples of this through some forms of contract tracing. This actually happened during sports conditioning camps, so much so that I had to shut those down, as did most districts. So the entire health-related matter has me really concerned about contributing to the rapid increase in patients in my community and the greater Houston area. So yes, the health issue is the primary driver of my decision.
Second, I have a great deal of confidence in our ability to make sure every student in Alief has a reliable, meaningful device and reliable connectivity. I was unable to say that in the spring when this started back in the spring. Actually, no one could really say that. We have purchased over 30,000 devices in the last two months and will have over 16,000 4G hotspots that we will be able to give to families. Based on all of our data, we feel that's more than enough for families who did not have connectivity or did not have a device during the spring. Now, please don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to imply that we now have this entire issue solved and all our problems fixed. To meet the needs and the demands of our families for those devices and internet connectivity, for this short period of time, I feel very confident that we can open up the virtual environment for everyone and then provide a much better, higher quality learning situation virtually for the first part of the school year. We're going to have our issues but I did not want our students to spend another three or four weeks without any type of education experience.
Third, the virtual beginning is not intended to be in place for the rest of the school year. It's intended to allow us to open the school year, monitor the health and safety data, monitor the success of the technology platform, and then begin bringing in students whose parents want their children to school at a time everyone feels it is safe to do so. As TEA announced yesterday, their guidelines would allow us three weeks to remain in a virtual environment (the first three weeks of the year), to start the school year 100% virtual. I'm not declaring that this is going to be the direction for the entire school year, or even the first semester, for that matter. It will only be in place for a short period of time while we look at the health related issues and the virtual learning related issues. There are other issues but these three were key in our decision making.
We’re thrilled to learn you’ve been able to supply all your students with devices and hotspots, but also know that hotspots are unfortunately only a temporary solution to a larger problem. Can you talk about the work you’re doing with Operation Connectivity and what you’d like to see long term to ensure educational access for all?
I completely agree with you, the hotspot solution is triage at best. It's not a long term solution. What I'm hoping is that our leaders, both in the private sector side and our government leaders, come to the conclusion that the need for internet connectivity is an equity issue for all people. I believe that internet connectivity has become similar to electricity, water, and plumbing. The equitable distribution of education cannot happen if our most needy, vulnerable portion of our community doesn't have access to the web. Other than the virus, the issue of the day right now is how to provide connectivity to all citizens. Two years from now, I would like to see families have access to this and not be in a position where they can't take advantage of an education system because they are unable to access the internet or they don't have a device. To me, this is unacceptable.
The providers have a huge role in this. We're working closely with them, and they're investing in our district [with] kind of a pilot. I'll give [Houston] Mayor [Sylvester] Turner credit. He has chosen to use some of Houston’s CARES Act money to begin piloting connectivity in Houston. He's putting some of that money where it is needed to see how we can best deliver the service immediately. It's going to take cities, counties, and geographic regions of counties partnering together to fully come to a conclusion as to what it's going to take. There's a short term play and there's a long term play, and we're playing in the short term right now while trying to prepare for the long term.
As it relates to Operation Connectivity, I applaud the Governor and other leaders for assembling the right people to search for a statewide solution to this issue. I am honored to be a part of the group but the real work is going to be delivered by our elected leaders and the private sector of internet providers.
You mentioned survey data you’ve been collecting. Can you talk about the perceptions of your students, families, and staff and how they shaped your ultimate decision?
We did a comprehensive survey of families during a five day period at the beginning of June. There were a lot of questions, but it basically boiled down to this: When we asked “how do you feel about sending your children back to school for in-person teaching and learning”, we had 65% that were either very concerned or concerned. And when you break it down demographically, our African American and Latino families were much more likely to be very concerned or very concerned than other student populations. It made sense to me considering that African Americans and Latinos represent a disproportionate percentage of the positive cases in our area. So I'm looking at my student population, which is 54% Latino and 30% African American, and this is what our families are telling us. This data was prior to the most recent spike in cases.
I then began looking at our teacher survey results. We did a survey for teachers basically asking the same questions. It was interesting that our teacher responses were almost identical to what our parents were telling us in terms of who was concerned and who were not.
Another question asked was, “do you think we should rethink how we deliver education in light of this pandemic”? And almost 90% of all respondents said, yes, education should change. Comments focused around more virtual opportunities for students so the survey data that we received, even in that first week of June, played a large role in our thinking.
You’ve mentioned how much of your student population is especially vulnerable to the virus itself. Can you talk about the ways in which they may also be uniquely susceptible to its adverse educational impacts?
This issue is not lost upon me. The thing that bothers me the most about all of this is what you just described. We have a large population of socioeconomically challenged students in Texas, a majority of students in Alief ISD, who are fearful, and in some cases scared to death, to go to school at this time. And for a legitimate reason. Unfortunately, it is this very student population that tends to not have reliable internet access and/or a reliable device for each child in their household. While we plan to provide a robust education virtually, I am deeply concerned that our most vulnerable and challenged student population will continue the “summer slide” they have experienced with long summer lay-offs from school. Even during normal school years, these students experience a loss of learning during a long extended summer break. The virus coupled with the lack of reliable internet is only hurting this student population worse. When considering the health related issues I have mentioned and the impact a student’s socioeconomic situation has on their ability to learn from home, we are facing an education equity issue that I am not sure how to overcome at this point. Everyone should be concerned and identify ways to address the problem.
So the bottom line is that school systems are facing two critical issues that are competing to be prioritized first. 1- We are facing the responsibility of protecting the health and well-being of our students, staff and families and 2- We are also facing the responsibility of providing a quality and meaningful education for all students, while keeping them safe. Every school system must protect their students and staff while preventing the learning losses that began in the spring to continue into the fall semester. In a way, in order to provide the quality education we all desire to provide all students (requiring in-person school), we would have to compromise the safety of all by opening schools up for in-person. And in order to prioritize the safety and health of students and staff, we have to compromise the education being provided a full virtual learning environment. No matter what I do, no matter what any school does for health and safety measures, whether it's masks, hand sanitizers or temperature checks, you cannot put a large number of students and adults under one roof and protect everyone's health. It's unrealistic in any environment. So you have these two things that are causing friction. I see that we have no choice but to prioritize the health of students and staff first and then do everything in my power to provide a quality virtual education for all students. School leaders are in a position that we must prioritize between the two issues. And I want to go back to something I said. One of the things that gives me a little bit of confidence is that I don't anticipate [virtual schooling going on] forever, but nonetheless, it's going to create gaps and in many cases, grow those gaps. No doubt about it.
Last year, the state legislature was able to significantly increase public education funding with House Bill 3. How can districts like Alief utilize the initiatives contained in that bill to mitigate some of the potential learning loss you refer to?
It's going to require districts like Alief ISD who have the type of student population I have to embrace some of the initiatives HB 3 provided in order to not only address the effects of COVID but the continuing effects of learning losses. We must consider researching different ways of approaching teaching and learning and in some cases, HB 3 has provided an incentive for school systems to explore. For example, the Additional Days School Year is one of the most impactful initiatives I have seen in several years. We are all going to need to find more quality academic, social and emotional time to recapture and make up for the significant learning losses our students are experiencing. I am not saying it will require a “day for day” make-up but I believe we are definitely going to have to rethink the school calendar, in both the short term and long term. The traditional school calendar already contributes to the loss of learning over the summer. I do not want to contribute to the learning losses experienced during COVID by continuing to use a school calendar that has opportunities for learning gaps built into it already. It's bad enough to have the summer slide that we already know about. It makes a lot of sense to me that many school systems should spread the school year out so that June, July and part of August is not a time for students to be out of school. This is contradictory to me.