Analysis: Schools open in Texas with unvaccinated K-6 students and months of learning loss to overcome

Johan Arzade, 12, looks at his COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card after receiving a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic organized by the Travis County Mobile Vaccine Collaborative at Rodriguez Elementary School on July 28, 2021. Source diversity info: Latino Male

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Public schools are opening this month in Texas, just as the delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading, rapidly filling emergency beds in hospitals around the state and putting emergency care back into the overcrowded and strained predicament it was in at the beginning of the year.

This surge in hospitalizations and cases caught the schools and many others by surprise. Parents and educators were hoping to get students back into classrooms. The education they get in person is markedly and measurably better than what those students get virtually on computers at home. And those same parents and educators were hoping to use the return of in-person classes to catch up for the class time lost since the closing of schools in spring 2020.

But a nasty and fast-spreading delta variant of COVID-19 is advancing aggressively, and parents and educators are trying to sort it out as the school year begins.

Texas children are required to go to school. Texas adults are supposed to take care of children, to keep them safe, whether those are their own kids or other kids put in their care. And the vaccinations that protect most people from getting the coronavirus and that limit the severity of the virus in those who get infected aren’t yet available for children under 12.

Think of that as almost all the students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

It’s hard to ensure students’ safety in classrooms during a pandemic surge. And Gov. Greg Abbott has said schools can’t require masks or mandate vaccinations or other responses to the coronavirus.

The difference in quality between in-person and virtual learning over the last year and a half was vast. For example, according to the Texas Education Agency, there was a 9% decline in math scores for kids in classrooms over the last year and a 32% drop in math scores for those learning online.

A year ago, TEA told schools they’d get paid the same for online and in-person students, giving school districts the ability to offer classes either way without losing money that’s based on attendance. This year, the agency doesn’t have that authority.

They might be able to bake up a new definition of attendance, paying schools the same no matter where the students are sitting.

They might be able to get the Legislature — if the Legislature can pull itself together enough to pass new laws — to take care of the funding questions. The current special session, busted up by House Democrats who left the state to block consideration of a Republican voting bill, ends on Friday. The governor has said he’ll call members back into another special session right away; he could add a school funding bill to the agenda if he wants one.

School districts can use federal COVID-19 relief funds to cover the costs of virtual classes, even if the state funding for online students is cut off. That’s a stopgap, and they’d be using money many had hoped to use to bring students back to the educational levels they’d have been expected to hit had there been no pandemic.

Parents are allowed to hold their kids back to repeat a grade (or in high school, a class), if they’re worried about the learning lost during the last school year. But they’ve got only a week or two to decide and to figure out whether their schools have an option for virtual learning.

That’s asking a lot of the parents— and the kids. And the state is caught, too, forced into a corner by the rejuvenation of a virus that seemed, after millions of people were vaccinated, to be within our control. But millions still aren’t vaccinated, and COVID-19 found a clear path to a third wave of infection.

One description of the problem, based on a line in the Texas Constitution about the purpose of public schools, got around fast enough to be heard from from two different (and disparate) people in the same day: “We may not be guaranteeing a general diffusion of knowledge, but we are guaranteeing a general diffusion of COVID.”

And for parents, students and educators, it couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

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