The debate surrounding reopening schools this fall seems to intensify daily. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, and government officials are struggling to weigh questions of safety against the realities of remote learning. It’s a difficult issue with no easy or universal answers. 

In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Texas schools scrambled to switch to at-home learning, whether online or by other means. While some families were able to adapt pretty efficiently, others were less able to make the transition. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) collected information from schools on the effectiveness of at-home learning, and the results are enlightening, though sobering. 

Texas schools were required to report student engagement (completing assignments) and the ability of teachers to contact them. Nearly 620,000 students (11.3% of the total) had notable difficulties. Of those, 7.2% were reported as having basically no engagement and 1.8% had no contact. Only 88.7% of students were fully engaged in online/at-home learning, while another 2.3% were not engaged initially but ultimately began completing assignments. 

Of the 600,000+ Texas students for whom online/at-home learning was not successful, about 82.8% were economically disadvantaged (meaning that they qualified for free or reduced-cost meals). About 62.4% of students not fully engaged were Hispanic, with 18.9% Black. These percentages are well in excess of those in the school-age population. District-level information is not yet available, but it is likely that these students are not proportionately distributed across the state. 

Some school districts experienced difficulty connecting with students and keeping them engaged due to problems such as a lack of technology or internet access or the inability of parents to help with assignments. Disparities in achievement are likely to have increased due to disruptions to education and resulting academic backsliding, being termed by some as “COVID slide.” Viewed through my economist’s lens, these patterns translate into diminished opportunity, widening income equality, and lost earnings and productivity that will span decades.  

Hopefully, school districts will be better prepared for the fall, but the sizable barriers that occurred in the spring have not simply disappeared over the summer. Moreover, even a fully engaged at-home student is not always receiving the equivalent of a classroom experience. 

The TEA has released guidelines for safely returning students to classrooms and many local districts are exploring innovative options. Nevertheless, the debate over whether schools should open involves myriad factors with health and safety being paramount. Many students rely on schools not only for education, but also for meals, and, in some cases, physical activity, social interaction, and the support of teachers and counselors. There are no easy answers, but it is critical to remember that much is at stake in the quality of public education in Texas. Be safe!!

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