(The Center Square) – With more children not returning to in-person education in the fall in Harris County, some parents are looking to alternatives to provide educational resources for their children. Others who can’t afford to do so are concerned that their children will fall behind because they lack digital resources to participate in online virtual learning.
Fort Bend ISD, one of the first Houston-area school districts to announce it would not provide in-person instruction, is, however, offering in-person learning at Fort Bend Learning Centers.
Non-public schools will be providing in-person learning, whereas public schools won’t be, at learning centers initially created to help disadvantaged families like the homeless, students in foster care, and those without internet connectivity. Fort Bend has 11 centers that can each seat 100 students, a total of 1,100.
Because schools are reopening and many parents want their children in in-person classrooms, the district has received 15,600 applications for its learning centers.
Nearly 13,000 of the applications were approved. However, 11,897 of the eligible students were put on a waiting list.
“We’re going to do everything we can to continue to run the program for as long as we need to while we’re operating online,” Superintendent Charles Dupre told KHOU 11 News, referring to Fort Bend public schools only offering distance learning.
The centers were slated to be open by Aug.19 for elementary and Aug. 24 for secondary, but their openings have been delayed.
Since public school teachers are contracted to provide materials for parents, guardians and others to print out and provide instructions to students at home through distance learning programs, the district is now looking for “any qualified youth and education professional looking for work” to provide in-person instruction.
Taxpayer dollars will still fund teachers who are not providing in-person or live instruction, while the district also hires others to provide in-person instruction at learning centers.
The Boys and Girls Club, churches and even HOAs are now being contracted to work with the district – instead of using the actual school buildings where students would normally attend – to accommodate students.
“We expect that we’re going to lose some students this year to other learning opportunities, whether it be private school, whether it be charter, whether it be homeschool due to the pandemic,” Dupre said.
But critics say it’s not the coronavirus pandemic, it’s the choices made by school boards and superintendents who have forced parents to find alternative educational opportunities.
"The countdown to the first day of school is a ticking time bomb," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said, saying the county is currently under "threat level red." She said this means there is “an uncontrolled spread of the virus,” and no student should be attending school in person as a result.
But Harris County data tells a different story, critics note. The reported number of positive cases of the coronavirus in Harris County is 87,500 out of a population of 4.7 million, or 1.8 percent. There also are 50,465 recoveries and 1,679 fatalities, which is 0.035 percent of the county's population.
The majority of deaths are among residents who are over 80 years old. The county reports zero (0 percent) fatalities in the following age groupings: under age 1, 1-9 years-old, 10-19-years-old.
The reported number of coronavirus-related deaths as a percentage of the county’s population is 0.19 percent. A range of medical practitioners and policy makers have questioned the death tally due to the county’s history of faulty reporting and misrepresentation of data. And the federal government has increasingly provided resources and military personnel to conduct testing and reporting in Harris County and other parts of Texas.
Withdrawals from Texas public schools are up, according to the Texas Home School Coalition. It processed 3,114 withdrawals from school in July alone. And the number keeps increasing.
“This is almost as many withdrawals as were processed in the 2019 calendar year, and this number represents only a portion of the total withdrawals statewide,” the coalition says. It anticipates that August “could be another record-breaking month.”
Hidalgo has overridden independent school districts, parents of Spring Branch ISD argue in a letter sent to Gov. Greg Abbott. Spring Branch ISD has a plan that gives families a choice between in-person learning and online learning slated to start Aug. 17, which follows the parameters of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. But Hidalgo says in-person can’t start before Sept. 9.
But this position conflicts with state law and remarks Hidalgo made Wednesday as reported by KHOU 11 News. When Hidalgo pitched a "Roadmap to Reopen Schools" plan, she said she cannot force school districts to comply with it and cannot order school district closures, KHOU 11 News reported. Abbott and the TEA gave the authority of opening and closing of schools solely to school districts and their boards.
“It is unreasonable and irresponsible for county officials to override our independent school district,” parents wrote in the letter to Abbott. “We must not allow Ms. Hidalgo to continue to act in ways that allow political and party line pressures to hijack the independence of school districts and thus hijack our children’s education.”
To help disconnected families, more federal resources have been made available to parents in Harris County. On Tuesday, Harris County commissioners approved $32 million in CARES Act funding to be allocated to a Digital Access Program. Funding will provide 82,000 WiFi hotspots and 211,000 devices for Harris County children.
Harris County is also partnering with the TEA to provide $19 million to "Operation Connectivity" for the devices.
Another source of funding comes from a public-private partnership, “Project 10 Million,” launched by T-Mobile. It allocates $13 million to provide 39,000 hot spots for students in under-resourced communities in Harris County.
KHOU 11 Investigates surveyed 15 districts and found that 8 percent of children (56,996) did not complete assignments through distance learning programs and were considered “not engaged” at the end of last school year.
A recent study by the nonprofit group, Common Sense, found that one in four Texas students do not have devices at home for distance learning, and one in three lack adequate access to the Internet, KHOU 11 News reported.
Harris County residents have created a Change.org petition seeking to remove Hildalgo from office. However, the Texas Constitution does not provide for a recall election of county judges.