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Across Texas, frantic parents search for options to keep kids safe in school

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A fifth grader at Jacob’s Well Elementary School in Wimberley works on their laptop behind a clear barrier meant to stop the spread of COVID-19 on September 4, 2020. - TEXAS TRIBUNE / JORDAN VONDERHAAR
  • Texas Tribune / Jordan Vonderhaar
  • A fifth grader at Jacob’s Well Elementary School in Wimberley works on their laptop behind a clear barrier meant to stop the spread of COVID-19 on September 4, 2020.
Heather Robertson has been on lockdown since March 2020. While restaurants, stadiums and stores have reopened across the state, Robertson and her Sugar Land family have not been afforded the comfort of pre-pandemic life.

Her 7-year-old son, Reid, had a liver transplant when he was 10 months old, leaving him immunosuppressed and more at risk for complications from COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, it was hard for Reid to fight off viruses.

Her other son, 11-year-old Reece, isn’t under the same predicament. But with COVID-19 surging once again, masking optional at his school and vaccines not available for children under 12, he runs the risk of passing the virus along to his brother. So Robertson is scrambling to find a safer option for her kids.

That scramble is being replicated across the state by school administrators, teachers and other parents. For the second straight school year, schools must worry about how to keep their staff and their children safe and ensure that they’re providing the best possible education during a pandemic that has killed more than 50,000 Texans. Complicating the matter this year: Gov. Greg Abbott has banned mask mandates in schools and the state will not provide funding for remote learning.

It’s still unclear when vaccines will be available for those under 12, but best-case scenarios suggest it could be late September or early October before they’re approved.

Worried parents across the state have found some hope this week as big-city school districts such as Austin, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio and other Bexar County schools opted to defy Abbott and require masking for everyone on campus.

Under Abbott’s executive order, districts or government entities can be fined $1,000, but it is unclear how this would apply to school districts. Abbott, along with Attorney General Ken Paxton, made clear this week that they plan to take school districts to court if they don’t comply with his order.

And Paxton on Wednesday told Dallas radio host Mark Davis that Texas could go the route of Florida, where the GOP governor there, Ron DeSantis, has threatened to pull the funding of school districts that violate his ban on mask mandates. Paxton said the Texas Legislature would have to be involved, but he thinks there are “definitely avenues [Abbott] will look at — we’ll look at with him — to enforce these laws.”

In El Paso, where school started more than a week ago, Jewel Contreras sends her young daughters to school with masks, even though El Paso ISD is not requiring them.

“That doesn't really do anything because they come home and they’re not wearing masks,” she said.

Contreras said her daughter's dad is epileptic and if he gets sick it triggers seizures. If virtual learning was an option at El Paso ISD, they wouldn’t have to worry about the potential health risks. If cases keep rising, Contreras said she will consider pulling her daughters out and home schooling them.

For Robertson, the Sugar Land parent, the same concerns arise. Masking is optional at Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, and like many other school districts across the state, there is no virtual learning option.

Last spring, when the pandemic hit, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath issued a waiver allowing districts to receive full funding for virtual learning. That has since expired and a bill that would’ve established and expanded virtual learning this fall died in the regular session after Texas House Democrats walked out to prevent passage of a GOP-backed bill that would outlaw local voting options, among several other changes to state elections.

During this month’s special legislative session, Senate Bill 15, another virtual learning bill similar to the one considered in the regular session, was approved by a committee in the Texas Senate on Tuesday. The bill allows for school districts and charter schools that received a C grade or higher in the most recent round of state accountability grades to offer remote learning to students. Under the bill, however, districts can’t have more than 10% of their student population enrolled online.

The measure has provisions to keep virtual learning in place until 2027, but several senators can’t get behind that. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, suggested the bill end in 2023, when the Legislature will meet again.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, also expressed concerns over the bill going beyond 2023.

“It seems to me that we are having a titanic shift in philosophy at some level over a crisis that we know is temporary,” Perry said.

Either way, the future of the bill is uncertain. Democrats have not returned to the state House as they continue to protest the elections bill. Until enough of them return, the chamber can’t pass any legislation.

Bob Popinski, director of Raise Your Hand Texas, an education policy and research group, said his organization believes the best form of instruction is in person. But with coronavirus scrapping plans, the organization supports bills like SB 15 that allow school districts to create their own local virtual learning programs.

Some school districts have heard the cries of parents and will offer virtual learning at the cost of their budgets. Austin, Frisco, Round Rock, Leander, Pflugerville, Richardson, Lake Travis and Del Valle school districts are each offering some form of virtual learning, mostly for kids under the age of 12.

Round Rock Independent School District has more than 2,000 students signed up for virtual learning, according to spokesperson Jenny Caputo. That will cost the district between $8 million to $10 million per semester, depending on final figures.

While Round Rock ISD did receive funding from the federal government through both the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, that won’t be enough to cover the costs because the district already had a deficit due to the shutdown of 2020.

“We're just relying on our current budget on being able to find savings where we can,” Caputo said. “However, you know this isn't sustainable long term.”

In Austin ISD, more than 7,000 families enrolled for the virtual option but only about 4,034 were accepted. Austin ISD spokesperson Eddie Villa said it will cost the district $10,100 per student, putting the bill at about $40.7 million. About 2,388 of those children are out of district. The district offered the option to out-of-district families because of limited virtual options during the latest coronavirus surge.

Villa said the district’s plan is to pay for that through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, but that could change as the district looks at its finances.

Other districts offering virtual options will also look toward the federal money to pay for it. In Frisco, the school district has about 8,100 students choosing the virtual option, costing the district about $20 million.

Frisco officials, though, say they are going to use money that the state is giving them in discretionary ESSER funds. Frisco ISD is set to receive about $33 million.

“I won't say that I didn't lose sleep over proposing this option,” said Mike Waldrip, Frisco ISD superintendent. “We just felt compelled as a district to do this in response to the disease level and what we're seeing in preliminary research that [the delta variant] may be affecting children differently and we've got this age group of children that don't have vaccination as an option.”

In rural communities, such as Caldwell ISD, virtual learning is not only a funding issue, but an accessibility one, said Superintendent Andrew Peters.

“Fifty percent of my families are in poverty,” Peters said. “They don't have strong internet, they're working off of a cellphone, you know, they don't have a big 20-inch computer screen.”

Peters said a lot of people in those families got laid off during the pandemic, and while they want their kids to do well in school, sometimes they're more worried about what they’re going to eat rather than how their kid is doing on a computer screen.

“I'm not opposed to [virtual learning],” he said. “I just don't think that our society is built for that kind of learning environment.”

During Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee hearing, senators especially expressed concerns over how recent STAAR test scores suggested that remote learning led to considerable learning loss for students over the last year and a half. Morath told senators that the percentage of kids excelling in virtual education is "very small” and estimates that learning loss wiped out between 10 to 20 years of statewide educational gains.

In districts where fewer than a quarter of classes were held in person, the number of students who met math test expectations dropped by 32 percentage points, and the number of students who met reading expectations dropped by 9 percentage points compared to 2019, the last time the test was administered.

The learning loss was particularly exacerbated in Hispanic communities. Hispanic students in districts with over three-quarters of learning done remotely saw the largest drops compared with students in other demographic groups, with a 10-percentage-point decrease in the number of students meeting reading expectations and a 34-percentage-point decrease in those meeting math expectations.

But still, for parents like Robertson, virtual learning is the best alternative. She said at least if her children struggled, she was there to help them and still had the assurance that they were safe.

Her 11-year-old, Reece, will attend the Texas Connections Academy at Houston, a full-time virtual school that is part of the Texas Virtual School Network under the TEA. There are seven such schools and most teach grades between 3 to 12. Reid is in second grade, which isn’t offered.

One of the schools, iUniversity Prep serves grades 5 to 12, but has a cap on how many students it receives each year. Spokesperson Kaye Rogers said the cap sits at about 1,400 and they usually attract kids who are actors, elite athletes or have health issues. The school has seen more calls coming from parents with coronavirus concerns but they haven’t been swarmed by requests, she said.

The Texas Tribune contacted the six other online schools but did immediately get a response for an interview request.

For now, Robertson is waiting for LCISD to approve her homebound instruction request. Usually, homebound instruction is given to students that are confined to their home or a hospital. Students receive at least four hours of instruction per week and otherwise independently work on assignments.

Still, Robertson is wary of homebound instruction because that will mean someone outside her household has to come to her home and give that work to her child. Another option for parents is home schooling. The Texas Home School Coalition, which advocates for and provides resources to home schooling families, has reported that its call and email volume doubled to 1,016 during the last week of July, up from 536 the week before.

“In 2020 we saw the largest surge in home schooling in history. It appears that renewed concern about COVID-19 may be about to replicate a similar trend for 2021,” THSC president Tim Lambert said in a statement.

Some teachers and parents are eager to return to classrooms. Stephanie Stoebe, a fourth grade teacher at Teravista Elementary School in Round Rock, said she isn’t worried about going back to school in person. She is vaccinated and takes the precautions necessary to be safe, she said.

She has cleaning protocols in place and will move desks apart. She also emphasized that families can send their children to schools with masks on. Policy is beyond her control, she said, but what she can do is be optimistic and give her students the best possible year.

“I'm really excited,” Stoebe said. “It's going to be a fantastic year.”

At the end of the day, parents like Robertson will have to make the decision that is right for their children.

“I've seen my child on a ventilator,” she said. “It's really frightening — it changes you and I don't want that for anybody's child.”

Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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