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Angela Tekell: Virtual learning, viral absences challenge Waco ISD daily

Angela Tekell: Virtual learning, viral absences challenge Waco ISD daily

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COVID-19 and schools: What’s really going on?

Understandably, the impact of COVID-19 on our schools dominates the daily news cycle. Typically, the news of the day is about dashboard data, school closures and event and game cancellations. In addition, the political debate on whether schools should be open or closed continues. However, the untold story is how our public schools are heroically meeting the everyday challenges presented by this global health pandemic while continuing to stay focused on the goal of providing an educational foundation that empowers and values all.

COVID-19 presents new and complex problems on a daily basis. Over the last six months, our schools planned and prepared for a completely new school environment in the midst of ever-changing state and federal regulations and mandates. In this short period of time, Waco Independent School District vastly improved its technology infrastructure to support virtual instruction, purchased and distributed thousands of devices to students and teachers, provided additional days of professional development for staff, re-tooled campuses to meet the safety and security needs of students and staff, all while never losing sight of the ultimate goal of improving instruction. However, despite these herculean efforts, the crisis is real and the demands overwhelming.

Waco ISD COVID-19 dashboard data do not come close to reflecting the true impact this public health crisis is having on our teachers, students and staff. Behind every positive case reported on the dashboard, there are numerous other staff members and students who have been exposed to the virus and are forced to quarantine, classes that are left uncovered, and more students and staff forced to adjust to virtual instruction.

So what’s behind the headlines? During our workshop last week, Superintendent Susan Kincannon highlighted the following challenges: lack of student engagement, virtual instruction, staff absences due to contact tracing, quarantining and illness, and teacher stress.

Lack of student engagement this fall is not unique to Waco ISD. Schools across the state are seeing a disturbing number of failures, especially at the high school level, from students who are receiving instruction virtually. Currently, 44% of Waco ISD high school students are receiving their instruction remotely — and of those students who have been remote from the beginning of the school year, approximately 42% are failing one or more classes. Failure rates in lower grade levels are also unacceptably high.

In addition to high failure rates, attendance for in-person instruction is 88% across the school district, an unacceptably low number; however, students attending remotely are only logging in 83% of the time. This does seem counter-intuitive given that appearing via Zoom seems easy, but this low attendance number combined with the high percentage of failures is compelling evidence that virtual instruction has a long way to go. Not only do teachers need ongoing professional development to learn how to be more effective on a virtual platform, but we already know that relationships are the foundation of effective teaching. Because we know that the best instruction is in-person, principals across the district are encouraging parents to return children to school when possible and safe. We are very concerned about the number of students in our community who are simply not engaging in any type of instruction.

While access to technology and good Wi-Fi access was an issue in the spring, this is no longer the case. Over the summer, the district invested in laptops for all students, upgraded all of the virtual learning platforms and worked with community partners to make sure all Waco students had access to the Internet. The district also has a technology department dedicated to helping students and families with any and all technology issues that pose a barrier to instruction. Despite all of these efforts to make technology and virtual instruction accessible to all students, student engagement remains a huge concern.

Of course, effective virtual instruction is not a skill that is learned overnight, or over three months. As Dr. Kincannon pointed out during our evening workshop last week, providing highly effective virtual instruction across a school district is a project of three to five years involving many hours of professional development and training. While the district did what it could in the short time frame presented by the pandemic, teachers still have a very steep learning curve. In response, the WISD school calendar was extended to allow teachers an additional four days of professional development along with extra duty pay. Additional days of staff training will be offered throughout the school year.

Teachers are under an unprecedented amount of stress. Teaching is hard and complex in the best of times. During COVID-19, being a teacher is overwhelming. So, on top of what is already a profession that requires work well beyond the normal work day and work week, teachers are now being asked to move all of their instruction onto a new remote platform, maintain relationships with all of their students (whether in person or not), cover classes for colleagues who are forced to quarantine or are experiencing illness in their families, and forgo valuable planning time in order to maintain safe and secure environments for children. It is too much.

Due to health guidelines regarding contact tracing and required quarantining as well as personal illness in families, staff absences are at an all-time high. The district has more than 200 substitutes in the substitute pool; however, only a fraction of those substitutes are currently accepting work in the district. On any given day there may be 50 unfilled positions that must be covered to ensure student safety. For that reason, classes are being covered by teachers during their off periods, planning periods and lunch periods. Principals, assistant principals and district administrators are also teaching classes regularly. Recently, the number of staff absences was too much to overcome, leading to the difficult decision to close the district’s high school campuses to allow time for staff to get back to normal attendance levels.

At the same time the district is re-tooling to meet the challenges presented by COVID-19, we remain dedicated to our ultimate goal which is providing high-quality instruction. The Texas Education Agency continues to declare that the A-F accountability system will be implemented in 2021. There were no STAAR tests in the spring of 2020 due to school closures, but the state has said that there will be in 2021. Regardless of whether the state enforces the A-F accountability system, Waco ISD is committed to improving instruction.

In order to help teachers, the school administration is adopting new software that will compile all student data in one format to aid teachers, is offering more professional development in the coming months to help with the switch to virtual instruction, is studying ways to change the master schedule to convert more teachers to either solely in-person or solely virtual, and is considering more changes to the school calendar to allow more time for training and support for staff.

In spite of COVID-19, the work of school improvement continues.

Local attorney Angela Tekell is president of the Waco Independent School District Board of Trustees. As an attorney, she has handled issues particular to public school districts, including special education mediation and due process hearings, grievances, personnel matters, open government issues, TEA and Office of Civil Rights complaints and Title IX, harassment, discrimination, retaliation and bullying investigations.

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