The past year has been a chaotic year for students across the country, who have been forced to switch to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, students in Texas have experienced another disruption to their education: the Texas winter storm.
Schools across the state closed last week as the deadly winter storm caused widespread power outages, busted pipes, and frozen buildings. Now, as Texans begin to get their water and power back, most schools are preparing to move forward with instruction on Wednesday.
The Texas Education Agency (TEA), which oversees primary and secondary public education in the state, offered waivers to schools last week to miss several days of classes. The waiver allows schools to close without requiring additional school days to make up the work. Districts were given the option to submit a “missed school day” request if their area has experienced power outages from the storm.
In an email to Prism, TEA provided more details about how schools will operate this week. Local education agencies have the option to continue with in-person instruction or move to 100% remote instruction if schools are damaged. For areas badly hit by the storm where in-person and remote instruction isn’t doable, schools may close completely and submit a waiver. A spokesperson for TEA did not elaborate on how many schools they anticipate will close completely.
Leander Independent School District in Central Texas has been hit especially hard by the storm. The school district has reported that 17 schools have been damaged, with five having “significant damage.” Right now, they say water is their biggest concern. A spokesperson for Leander ISD has not responded to requests by Prism to comment, but the school district has announced that most schools will resume with in-person and virtual instruction beginning Wednesday. For the few schools with significant damage, students will switch to 100% remote learning.
More than 130 school districts in the Houston Independent School District lost power last week. Students in Houston will do remote instruction Wednesday through Friday this week, with face-to-face instruction expected to resume on Monday, March 1. For Dallas Independent School District, the state’s second-biggest school district, crews are still surveying the damage as classes prepare for online instruction on Wednesday. Over 100 buildings in the school district were impacted by the storm, and more than 130 pipes had burst.
Austin Independent School District, the fifth-largest school district in Texas with a predominantly Latinx student population, provided the following statement to Prism:
“Austin ISD is continuing to focus our support on the mental and physical health of our students, staff and community as we collectively recover from the infrastructure challenges our state is enduring,” said Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde in a statement to Prism.
School is out for Austin ISD until Wednesday, when they will switch to 100% remote learning for the remainder of the week. Since it’s still unclear whether all students in the area will have reliable internet service or a warm space to do remote learning, the school district says they will take students’ circumstances into consideration. Beginning this Friday, Elizalde told Prism that Austin ISD will provide asynchronous instruction “with the understanding that we will be flexible to student’s emotional, physical and academic needs.”
“Jennifer,” who has asked to use a pseudonym to protect her job and identity, works as a middle school teacher in a suburb of Austin. Before the storm, her school had been giving parents the option to send their children to school or do remote learning, so the teachers at Jennifer’s school have been teaching students both in-class and remotely at the same time.
“This has been my hardest year ever,” she said. “This has probably been my 16th or 17th year to teach, and it has definitely been the hardest.”
Jennifer said many of her students lost power for about 36 hours, but power has been returned. Her school district informed her Monday that school will operate remotely on Tuesday and resume regular, pre-storm instruction on Wednesday.
Jennifer says the pandemic has prepared teachers to adapt quickly to remote learning. Every student in her school was given Chromebooks at the start of the pandemic, and teachers developed a protocol to assist students who had problems, including providing a hotspot for students living in rural areas who might need one.
“The problem with being remote though is that you’re always going to have kids who can’t get on, so catching those kids is difficult,” Jennifer said.
If any kids who had opted into remote learning are unable to get online due to the storm, Jennifer said her school already has a plan for that. Early on in the pandemic when students didn’t have access to the internet, the staff at her school made calls to check on students and their parents and make arrangements.
“We’re really good at tracking our kids down,” she said. “It’s almost like the lessons that we had to learn during that uphill challenge in the spring … we have a system for everything now.”
Jennifer is well aware of the emotional toll students may be experiencing as a result of the storm and the pandemic, and says she’s already heard discussions among staff about how to deal with it.
“I know we have people in our district who are working on helping kids through the trauma,” Jennifer said. Details about what plans will be in place haven’t yet been made public.