Houston-area school districts have faced a tumultuous year as they transitioned from traditional classrooms to virtual “crisis learning” in the spring to a now hybrid model of online and face-to-face school as the pandemic rages on.
Vast challenges persist, including the struggle to maintain safe schools for students and teachers amid a pandemic that has claimed over 450,000 lives in the United States. Learning loss and mental health of students are also concerns, as is the stark digital divide in education.
Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre said online learning has morphed from what they called “crisis learning” in the spring 2020 to an organized approach in the fall semester that featured more devices and online tools, as well as higher demands on students and teachers.
“It’s looked good, but it has not been without challenges because everybody’s been adapting to a whole new way of learning in a way we had to implement very quickly without proper change of management and organizational system changes,” Dupre said.
Most teachers did not have experience doing lessons online before the pandemic forced their hand, and some were uncomfortable with technology at the outset.
Fort Bend schools had to shift a portion of schools back to fully remote learning recently, stopping face-to-face learning temporarily on campuses with teacher shortages, according to Dupre. He said central administrators served as substitutes, but that they were forced to close schools temporarily based on the high number of quarantines.
“The greatest thing our students have had to overcome have been the reality that they are living life in a pandemic,” Dupre said. “And it’s scary, it’s frightening, it’s disconcerting, it’s taking away their natural need to socialize and connect with one another.”
Mental health has been a concern amid the pandemic for both at-home students and even those learning face-to-face, according to Dupre. High-quality social and emotional learning is needed to provide students with critical skills to navigate this crisis, including empathy, compassion, self-regulation, stress management, communication and collaboration, according to a report from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
Some students who are more introverted may be thriving during at home learning, but the majority of students have struggled with the lack of socialization. Counselors are available, teachers are trained to respond to students’ needs, and the district has sent guides to parents. In the U.S., there are about 427 students per one school counselor, nearly double the recommended 250-to-1 ratio, according to the Education Commission of the States. Dupre said that when students become isolated, depressed or hopeless, they don’t engage with school.
“No matter how much we complain sometimes about social media and our kids being addicted to their screens and social media, our kids still desire, long for, and need social interaction face-to-face in school environments,” Dupre said. “And it’s been hard. I’ve heard from many parents who have expressed that their children have had serious mental health issues this year because of the isolation and not being able to fully engage.”
Some students in Fort Bend ISD have been able to work more hours with asynchronous learning, which for some homes have been important, Dupre said. Asynchronous online learning is allowing students to gain time management skills as they have more power to balance school, work and activities, according to Dupre.
“They’re able to do their classes with their teachers in the morning and then they have all afternoon free and they can go to work and then they can do their school work on their schedule around their work and school schedule,” Dupre said. “I had one of… our high school students tell me the other day they have learned so much now about how to manage their time.”
On the other side of the region, Humble ISD has not closed any schools, despite surpassing the matrix levels for COVID-19 cases set at the beginning of the school year.
“We wanted a hyper-local context for the conversations in Humble ISD when we created the matrix which is why we heavily weighted hospital bed use at our local hospitals,” Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said in the January board meeting. “And our benchmarks we used were from last July. Last July, there was no vaccinations available for health care workers and our hospitals were very unsure, the treatments were a little less well known, and these are just me repeating what they said.”
Some Humble ISD teachers reported a successful transition to online learning.
Emily Porter-Roy, a kindergarten and first-grade virtual teacher at Humble ISD’s Willow Creek Elementary, said online teaching is a unique experience. The biggest learning curve for her was finding ways to transition methods she would use in the classroom to a virtual setting.
“There really is no comparison,” said Porter-Roy, who has taught for a dozen years. “I feel like it’s my first year again.”
Brittany Gonzalez, an eighth-grade science teacher at Riverwood Middle School, said she prefers in-person teaching, but tries to make the best of her time online.
With virtual learning, Gonzalez was able to do unusual lessons like “kitchen chemistry” to learn physical and chemical changes, one of the hardest units in the school year, according to Gonzalez. Their school has used the learning platform Schoology for five years, making the transition much easier. The platform also allowed teachers the chance to check-in virtually with students to see how they are doing whether academically or otherwise.
“For a lot of students, school is their safe place and school is their release and their escape … and definitely their social world, so I know for some students they did not handle being virtual very well at all,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said some middle school students had difficulty reconnecting socially with peers and teachers alike when they transitioned back to campus
Allyson Pitcel, an AP English teacher at Kingwood Park High School, said that by having Schoology established already, the transition to virtual school was much easier than it would have been.
“When everything happened almost a year ago, it was nice because we didn’t have to learn a platform, and our students didn’t have to learn a platform, it was just building on what we already knew,” Pitcel said.
Candis Houston, president of Aldine American Federation of Teachers, taught online at an alternative campus prior to the pandemic. She was already familiar with Schoology, which is the online platform they had for years but had not really been trained on, according to Houston. When it came time to use the program at the start of the pandemic, it was something teachers had to pick up in only a few weeks.
“Basically, I like to say wasting taxpayer’s money,” Houston said.
While Houston said she was thankful that they transitioned back to online learning this fall, the expectations for students changed. At the start of the pandemic, the Texas Education Agency canceled state assessment testing, and online learning was the standard. Flexibitlity was key for everyone.
In July, the TEA required schools to offer an option for in-person learning to receive full state funding.
Aldine high schools follow a rotation so that in a two-week span students would be in one particular class five times, according to Houston. The district decided that students should be getting 20 to 40 assignments in a week online, or an assignment per day for each class, which was not done prior to the pandemic. On top of these new requirements, sports returned and students who wanted to play needed to keep up their grades, Houston said.
“That was insane,” Houston said. “So, the expectations… I don’t know what they were thinking, it became too high for the student and the teacher.”
As demands for students grew, so did the demand for teachers with no overtime or hazard pay, according to Houston. She signed up to become a substitute after a 17-year career in teaching because as a leader in the district, she wants to be able to have first-hand experience of what it’s like to teach in a pandemic.
The majority of teachers in Aldine schools are serving both virtual and in-person students, she said. Elementary teachers have told Houston that they even have the same number of students in the classroom that they did prior to the pandemic.
“Teachers are telling me they’re putting in 10 to 14 hours a day,” Houston said. “They can’t get everything done in the day. They’re having to take it home and do it, so they’re working 8 or 9 o’clock at night. They’re working almost every day on the weekend. Online learning has created more work for teachers but they’re still getting their same pay.”
More care needs to be extended to employees, she said.
“Because we have a new normal, it doesn’t mean we’re normal,” Houston said. “We’re still in a pandemic.”