Amid COVID’s learning slide, Fort Worth candidates look for ways to help kids catch up

Silas Allen
·7 min read

The academic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic represents one of the biggest challenges facing the Fort Worth school district and its Board of Trustees over the next year.

More than 32,000 students in the Fort Worth school district are still learning remotely, and school officials don’t know when the district will be able to bring all students back to school in person. Once all students are back in the classroom, district leaders — including a slate of new trustees — will have to find ways to help students who lost ground during at-home learning.

“Education has changed pretty dramatically over the past year for a lot of reasons beyond our control,” said Cade Lovelace, a candidate for the district’s Board of Trustees District 9 seat. “Students didn’t receive the same type of education they have in the past.”

School leaders await TEA guidance

Raul Peña, one of the Fort Worth school district’s chiefs of school and student support, told the Star-Telegram in March that the district was limited in its ability to plan for the fall semester because officials didn’t know when all students will return to school in person.

Teachers and principals urgently want to know what to expect at the beginning of the next school year, Peña said. But much of the answer to that question depends on Texas Education Agency guidance that hasn’t been issued yet, he said. A month later, the district is still waiting for that guidance, a district spokesman said.

Meanwhile, evidence is growing that months of at-home learning have taken a toll on students. In a study released late last month by Horace Mann Educators Corp., an Illinois-based insurance company that works primarily with educators and their families, 93% of teachers surveyed reported their students had experienced some level of learning loss during the pandemic.

In the study, 53% of teachers responded they’d seen significant learning loss, and another 44% said their students had shown some learning loss. More high school teachers reported learning loss than did teachers of younger students, according to the report. Teachers in low income schools were more likely to report significant academic impact than those at more affluent schools.

The largest share — 47% — of teachers surveyed said a bigger gap between academically strong and struggling students will be the biggest challenge for teachers when schools return to normal.

In a separate study released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, parents of students in remote learning were more likely to report their children experienced less physical activity, less time spent outside, less time spent with friends either virtually or in-person and worsened mental and emotional health.

Learning loss a top priority for Trustees candidates

Fort Worth school officials haven’t released a plan to address the academic fallout from the pandemic. Several candidates for the district’s Board of Trustees have suggested extending the school year or adding hours to the school day to help students catch up. Trustee Daphne Brookins, the incumbent candidate for the board’s District 4 seat, told the Star-Telegram’s editorial board that she expects to see an expansion of summer school and other ways to add hours to the day.

Lovelace, the District 9 candidate, said the district needs to treat the issue “like the emergency that it is.” At the beginning of the school year, the district was confronted with a public health crisis, and leaders took it seriously, he said. Lovelace, a Fort Worth attorney, said he hopes the district’s plan for addressing learning loss reflects the same level of urgency.

Pandemic-related learning loss will need to be the top priority for incoming trustees, as well, Lovelace said. The hybrid learning model the district adopted this year was new territory both for teachers and students, he said, and it hasn’t been effective for all students in the district. He worries about the loss of academic progress students have experienced this year. Some of those students may be able to recover in a year or less, he said, but the district needs to be prepared to help students who take two or three years to catch up.

Lovelace said he couldn’t name a specific plan he’d like to see the district enact because much of its response will depend on TEA guidance that hasn’t been issued. But he said he’d like to see all students back in classrooms as soon as that guidance and Fort Worth’s COVID numbers allow.

“There’s no doubt that the best place for kids to learn is the classroom,” Lovelace said.

Roxanne Martinez, another District 9 candidate, said she’d heard from parents who want their children to stay in remote learning through the fall. Martinez and her husband volunteer at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School. She’s noticed the school has relatively few students attending in person. Many families in the area continue to worry about whether their children would risk exposure to COVID-19 if they went to school in person, she said. She hopes vaccination rates will increase enough by this fall that families will feel more comfortable sending their children back to school in person.

Martinez said she worries about students who have disengaged from school this year. She’s heard from several high school students who are considering dropping out and going to work. One of the district’s biggest tasks will be to find ways to reconnect with those students and convincing them to stay in school through graduation, she said.

Martinez said she’d like to see the district roll out accelerated, personalized plans to help students recover. Fort Worth district officials have said they plan to adopt an accelerated model, which helps students catch up quickly rather than placing them in remedial classes. Many education researchers say acceleration is a more effective model than remediation because students tend to get stuck in remedial classes and fall even further behind.

But Martinez said she doesn’t think an extended school year would be the best use of the district’s resources. Not every student needs help catching up, she said. Martinez has seen that in her own family. She and her husband have a son and a daughter in fourth grade in the Fort Worth school district. Her daughter has thrived in online learning, she said. But her son struggled with remote learning until his teacher suggested he come back to school in person. Rather than extending the semester for all students, Martinez said it would make more sense for the district to focus its efforts on the students who need the most help.

Michael Shedd, another candidate for the District 9 seat, said the district already had ground to make up before the pandemic began. TEA rated the Fort Worth school district as a C in its 2018-19 school ratings. The 10 other major urban districts scored a B or an A. The agency suspended ratings for the 2019-20 school year due to the pandemic. The district can’t climb out of that hole by approaching its work in the same way it always has, Shedd said.

Shedd, the deputy chief of the Fort Worth Police Department, said the district’s biggest priority needs to be getting students back to school in person. He worries about the number of students who have gone missing during the pandemic. Once all students are back in the classroom, he’d like to see the district add days to the school year and hours to the school day to help students catch up. Doing so would involve finding a way to pay teachers for those extra hours, he said.

Even if it extends the school year, Shedd said the district will need to find ways to make the best use of that extra time. That could include holding special instruction periods for students who need extra help, he said.

“It’s going to take a lot of creativity,” Shedd said.

Early voting for the Fort Worth school district’s Board of Trustees begins April 19. Election Day is May 1.