Michael Wood, Manager, Education & Workforce
Public education has weighed heavily on the minds of parents, students, teachers, and administrators since the widespread closure of schools in mid-March due to COVID-19. Since then, parents and education stakeholders have sought clarity from school leaders about their plans to keep students safe and make up for learning lost over an extended break from in-person instruction.
As part of that effort, the TEA facilitated planning exercises between school districts and public health authorities to help school leaders minimize disruptions to in-person learning in the event of a positive COVID-19 case. In addition, the TEA is partnering with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to provide a public-facing data dashboard tracking COVID-19 cases in schools. As of September 18, approximately 4,500 students and staff – roughly 0.2% of those that have returned for in-person learning – have tested positive for the virus.
Yet, many students have not returned to in-person instruction. Just 1.1 million of the state’s 5.4 million students were on campus during the first week of the school year. The TEA has also helped districts re-engineer the school experience to promote high-quality remote instruction and facilitate academic progress for students learning from a distance.
An important part of that work is Operation Connectivity, a statewide plan kick-started by Dallas ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa to connect all public school students with devices and internet connectivity to ensure access to virtual learning. The TEA assessed that 1.6 million students lacked proper devices for remote instruction, while 1.9 million lacked a reliable connection to the internet. Since the initiative’s launch in May, the state has acquired and deployed nearly 3 million devices to students in need.
Gaps in access still exist, however, and the TEA has plans for a second and third phase of Operation Connectivity, focused on negotiating affordable plans with internet service providers and building broadband infrastructure in areas of the state without coverage.
In addition to ensuring access to virtual learning, the TEA has worked to improve its efficacy statewide by providing a free online learning management system, digital instructional tools, and trainings for teachers and principals.
Despite best efforts of quality virtual learning platforms, Commissioner Morath fears that students have suffered significant learning loss over extended school closures. Further driving that concern is a lack of end-of-year assessment data from the spring semester, leaving educators in the dark as to their students’ mastery of grade-level concepts.
“It is a major loss that we are blinded to that academic information,” said Morath. “If you think about the COVID crisis, we are better off if [people] have access to tests so we can see what is going on with the virus in our community. We are similarly better off understanding where our students are in terms of mastery of their content knowledge.”
To that end, Commissioner Morath and the TEA are prioritizing the availability of beginning-of-year evaluations statewide to assess the extent of learning loss. Commissioner Morath also expects that come April, Texas’ public school students will be sitting down to take the STAAR, the state’s primary test and accountability tool, to avoid entering another school year without a clear picture of academic progress.
During a panel conversation, regional school leaders Hinojosa, Dallas ISD Board of Trustees President Justin Henry, Plano ISD Superintendent Sara Bonser, and Richardson ISD Superintendent Dr. Jeannie Stone echoed the commissioner’s sentiment about evaluating learning loss. Each district is focused on administering beginning-of-year assessments to all students – even those who have opted for virtual instruction – to establish baseline data for each student and target interventions as needed.
School re-opening plans across the three districts are also going smoothly.
Thus far, Plano and Richardson ISDs have successfully resumed face-to-face instruction after several weeks of fully virtual learning. In both districts, approximately half of parents elected to send their students to school for in-person learning.
Dallas ISD is still largely virtual and will begin welcoming students back to campus on October 5, although the district’s youngest students and those starting at a new campus will have access a week earlier. The district, however, is simultaneously dealing with yet another casualty of the COVID-19 crisis: lagging student enrollment.
On the first day of classes, Dallas ISD was 28% short of its projected enrollment. That figure is now down to 7%, primarily concentrated among students in Southern Dallas and pre-K aged children. Enrolling these missing students remains a priority for the district.
The superintendents have also set their sights on the upcoming Texas legislative session. The 2019 session saw the passage of House Bill 3 (HB 3), a historic school finance package that invested $6.5 billion in the state’s public schools over the biennium. Protecting those gains – particularly in light of the expanded need for resources amid the pandemic – is a must.
“The resources that it is going to take to close these [achievement] gaps is not less,” said Bonser. “If we are going to live up to the intent of HB 3 and recover the learning loss from COVID, there is not a need for less resources.”
In a closing call to action, Stone stressed that advocating for sustained investment in public education is not solely the burden of the state’s public school districts.
“We really need our business partners to know how important this is. If we are to send you [a ready workforce], we need support from you to advocate and make sure HB 3 is on your legislative priorities, as well,” she said.
The 2020 State of Public Education was presented by Toyota Motor North America and Wells Fargo. Thomson Reuters was a gold sponsor for the event; Iconic IT and Oncor were silver sponsors.