TYLER, Texas — The pandemic isn't over, but for some, the option to learn remotely is coming to an end. More and more school districts across East Texas are requesting students to return to campus. That is unless they have medical reasons for continuing to learn from home.
School leaders at Tyler ISD and Alba-Golden ISD say these decisions were not made lightly since there's no question the coronavirus is still a threat, but they're worried about another threat, as well. They say they're worried about their remote learners not being successful.
"The percentage of kids failing, at least one or more classes at the end of the first grading period is sometimes as high as 90% or more and a grade level," Dr. Cole McClendon, Alba-Golden ISD Superintendent, said.
"You have to understand that there is a contract that goes from the school back to the home for this virtual learning experience," Dr. Marty Crawford, Tyler ISD Superintendent, explained. "And we were getting varying degrees of results back, you know, 60% are not being successful, you have to adjust."
Whether it's a district with 18,000 students like at Tyler ISD or just 850 students at Alba-Golden ISD, the struggle and success with remote learning seem fairly universal for the 10 to 20% of students still choosing that option.
The question is why?
"Well, I think there's a lot of factors," Crawford said. "Certainly, connectivity is sporadic. Even though a metropolitan area like Tyler, you have pockets that are causing some barriers, even though we added some park-to-learn sites to where you can go up once or twice a week, to touch base for your laptop or your Chromebook to actually speak with our WiFi system. We've got those as well and then I also think that to no fault of theirs, the support at home varies and in tremendous ways, whether it be capacity, whether it be accessibility, connectivity. It could be that parents, you know, are working two jobs. So in saying that, I think that's one of the reasons that you have to adjust.
McClendon says the data indicated remote learners were regressing academically.
"Since kids were out last spring as well, we're looking at nearly a year of learning lag that they'll have not being in class. So, academically, we feel a need to be here in person because we're really struggling with reaching those kids," McClendon said. "And, for academic purposes, we feel like the best place is in the classroom with the teacher and so we're wanting them to come back, but we're gonna do it in a safe and healthy manner as well."
Another real concern the superintendents uncovered – the toll asynchronous remote learning is taking on teachers, who they say are working overtime to meet students' needs.
"And it really has doubled the workload for a teacher because they're not only teaching their classes in-person, but they're trying to reach out and do as much as they can for those kids that are remote," McClendon explained. "So, for a teacher, it can be a lot of work. I want to brag on ours here because they have not complained. They're here for kids, but it's frustrating when a kid is not logging on and not completing their assignments. I don't know what else a teacher can do to make that productive."
"The teacher is figuring out a way to allow their instruction, allow their curriculum to be accessed outside of normal hours and as you can imagine, for those families that have chosen that, outside of those normal hours, they would also like accessibility to those teachers outside of normal hours," Crawford said. "And teachers, already know bust their tail, for lack of a better term, during the actual school day and certainly one thing that is concerning is the amount of hours our teachers are putting in. We've heard from them that they're willing to continue to do this, but that was one thing that they said was, if we can figure out a way to adjust this to get our numbers down towards manageable, they can really do that."
Technically, remote learning will go on for some students.
"Absolutely, if a doctor can provide that documentation then we're not going to force a kid to come back that has health concerns. So, we're really talking about those students that chose remote learning on a voluntary basis, not because of health conditions," McClendon said.
What about those students who were flourishing?
"Well, I think when you start thinking about that, we're certainly student-centered, but the input and the the vehicle we use for those students to be successful is in the classroom," Crawford said. "There is a, you know, when you're trying to operate two dual instructional systems, there is no doubt that the strain that is putting on our instructional staff, i.e. the teachers, a little bit with campus administration. [It] is something that you also have to be concerned about as well. And from getting feedback from our teachers and our principals, they see the value of being able to really focus on on what they know, and that is classroom instruction. We certainly will still continue to offer digital instruction, the virtual learning as well for those that have a medical attestation, along with those that do get some type of sickness, whether it be COVID or during the flu, so there's going to be a continuum still going on. We started tight on this and we can loosen up at times and then we can also contract again, if we need to. Right now, the data says that we can loosen up a little bit. Certainly there is some COVID out there. We're dealing with that as well, and we think that the protocols that we have in place can maintain the safety on our campuses for our students as well."
Looking at Texas Education Agency's latest data, Alba-Golden ISD has reported a total of six cases of COVID-19.
For the week ending on October 18, Tyler ISD reported 32 student cases and 12 staff cases. For a yearly total of 124 student cases and 66 staff cases with the majority of student cases in grades 7-12.
However, Tyler ISD says the number of active COVID-19 cases has remained below 1% – currently at .175%.
Crawford says the academic, social, mental, and physical benefits of in-person school far outweigh the virus risks.
"We can't lose another semester as far as credit attainment, like high school kids because graduation rates are going to be affected if we don't do something like this, which means that you're not having a dropout crisis here in Tyler, which means it's going to turn into an economic crisis," Crawford said.
These decisions have been met with resistance from some students, parents and even teachers in some cases.
"I feel like people just having patience and grace during this time. I mean, frustrations can run very high and this really brings out the point how important it is for parents and teachers, and school administrators to work together,". McClendon said.
Everyone is learning lessons along the way.
"So, you have to have trust in each other and you have to say that we are going to get through this and be stronger when it's over," McClendon said.
"We need kids of all different makeups – economically and racially – sitting next to us to be successful as a society. We can't separate ourselves. We can't let this virus separate our society as it is for long term. There's no doubt that this was the right response early on, but there comes a time when you have to say that academically and educationally speaking, we need to be together," Crawford said.
Both Tyler and Alba-Golden ISDs are requiring students to return by Monday, November 2.