Last month, Fort Worth school administrators told the district’s board of trustees they were working on a plan to offer an improved remote learning option for students in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19. Officials said they planned to move quickly on the project because thousands of students are placed in quarantine each week, leaving them without access to live instruction from their teachers.
But a month later, the district still doesn’t have a timeline for when that plan might be online. Staffing issues with a third-party vendor have prevented the district from beginning the program, a district spokesperson said.
A national expert says students who miss large numbers of school days are at risk of falling behind their peers. It’s an even greater cause for concern when those absences come in the first weeks of the school year, when students establish routines and learn core concepts they’ll use for the rest of the year.
Thousands of Fort Worth students quarantined
By Oct. 8, the district had recorded 20,786 recommended quarantines after students were either exposed to the virus or tested positive since the district’s athletics programs began on Aug. 2. That total represents more than a quarter of the district’s total enrollment, which stood at 75,413 on Sept. 9.
That quarantine total could include duplication, meaning any student who was asked to quarantine twice would be counted twice. Not all of those recommendations resulted in a quarantine, since TEA guidance allows parents to opt out as long as their children aren’t symptomatic.
Under district policy, people who come in close contact with someone with COVID-19 must quarantine for 10 days before returning to school. The district defines “close contact” as being within 6 feet of someone infected with the virus for 15 minutes or more. Vaccinated people who don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 don’t need to quarantine after exposure.
Anyone with an active case of COVID-19 must quarantine until their symptoms improve and 10 days have passed since they first developed symptoms. Those with asymptomatic cases must quarantine for 10 days after their positive test.
Students who are in quarantine are given excused absences. Teachers make assignments they missed available on Google Classroom, so students can access them from home. Students are required to make up work they missed when they return to school.
Students are largely cut off from live instruction from their teachers while quarantined. Last year, in-person students who had to quarantine could join their classes online. But state rules don’t allow the district to offer that option this year. Districts also can’t ask teachers to teach in-person and remote students simultaneously, a practice that left Fort Worth teachers frustrated and overwhelmed last year.
Remote option for quarantined students is a high priority
District officials declined interview requests for this story. But during a Sept. 14 school board workshop, administrators told the board they were working on a plan for a remote conferencing option for students who were in quarantine. Karen Molinar, the district’s deputy superintendent, told the board the district doesn’t have the staff to be able to designate some teachers as remote-only. So district officials planned to use a third-party vendor to cover the remote conferencing classes, she said.
After the district’s temporary remote option for students with underlying medical conditions went online, district officials shifted their focus to the remote conferencing option for students in quarantine, said David Saenz, the district’s chief innovation officer. With thousands of students in quarantine, district officials hoped to have the remote conferencing option available quickly, he said.
Board member Roxanne Martinez told administrators she was concerned about the number of students who had spent long periods in quarantine. Some parents had told her that their children had spent about half of the school year up to that point in quarantine. Because those students didn’t have access to virtual learning during quarantine, most were cut off from instruction, she said.
“They can make up the work, but without that instruction, it can be very hard,” Martinez said.
Rebecca Slack, a district spokesperson, said officials were still planning to use a third-party provider to offer live instruction to students in quarantine. But that company has had staffing issues that have prevented the district from starting the program, she said. The district has no timeline for making that option available, she said.
In the meantime, students would still have access to online tools and coursework, Slack said. Students receive support when they return to school, and teachers monitor their progress and connect them with extra help like tutoring when needed, she said.
Social challenges for students
Russ Boyd’s daughter, Bell, a sixth-grader at Applied Learning Academy in Fort Worth, had to quarantine in early September after being exposed to the virus at school. Boyd said he got a call from a school nurse after his daughter had already left school for the day, saying she needed to stay home for 10 days. On the fifth day, she could take a COVID test. If it was negative, she could return to school on the seventh day. She tested negative, Boyd said, but by the time the results came back, her 10-day quarantine was complete.
Bell’s teachers posted videos to Google Classroom explaining assignments and teaching concepts. The videos weren’t the same as the instruction she would have gotten in class, he said, but she had little trouble staying on top of the homework.
The social side of the quarantine was more difficult, Boyd said. As a sixth-grader, Bell was only a few weeks into her first year as a middle-schooler, and she’d loved it so far, he said. The quarantine meant she was away from new friends and teachers for several days on end, just as she was getting used to her new school. The quarantine also meant she had to miss her first school dance, something she’d been looking forward to, he said.
Boyd said he’s happy that the district is using safety measures like quarantines to keep students as safe as possible. But he said it was a shame that his daughter’s exposure happened when it did.
Chronic absenteeism affects educational outlook
Education researchers say chronic absenteeism — when students miss 10% or more of school days for any reason, whether excused or unexcused — can affect students’ chances of reading on grade level by third grade, succeeding in middle school and graduating from high school on time. Hedy Chang, executive director of the national education nonprofit Attendance Works, said there’s little research to show whether absences during mandatory quarantine periods do the same academic damage as other types of chronic absenteeism.
But Chang said it’s worrisome that so many students have been absent for long stretches during the first weeks of the school year. Students generally learn core concepts at the beginning of the year that they’ll build on over the rest of the year. Students who have to quarantine early in the school year miss out on some of that instruction and have to catch up later, she said.
When large numbers of students are out of school for an extended period, it can be even more academically harmful than when schools are forced to shut down entirely, Chang said. She pointed to research conducted after snow days in Massachusetts that suggested students were better off when schools shut down because of snow than they were if schools remained open, but large numbers of students weren’t able to make it to school. When large numbers of students are out for an extended period, it leaves teachers with the challenge of helping all those students catch up with their classmates when they return, Chang said.
Those early days in the school year are also when students develop habits and routines that they’ll follow through the rest of the year, Chang said. If those habits and routines include chronic absenteeism, students could suffer academically for the rest of the year, she said. She pointed to research from the Baltimore school district and school districts in Connecticut that suggests that students who miss several days of school at the beginning of the year are more likely to rack up more absences over the rest of the year.
When students have to miss school because of quarantine requirements, Chang said, it’s important that districts do everything they can to keep them connected with instruction. Generally, live instruction from a teacher is a better option than having students work on assignments independently, she said, because they can interact with an adult and ask questions when they don’t understand. If districts offer remote classes, they need to track and monitor students to make sure they show up, she said.
Teachers also need to be ready to help students catch up on what they missed, Chang said. That process starts before those students even return to school, she said. As soon as school leaders find out a student is in quarantine, they should connect that student with extra support like tutoring, she said. Even students who stay on top of their assignments during quarantine will need individual attention to catch up, she said.
Board member sees continued need for remote option
Martinez, the Fort Worth school board member, said she continues to be concerned about the amount of time students miss during quarantine. Her own children have had to quarantine three separate times each after being exposed to COVID-19 at school. They’ve been able to shorten their quarantines by taking COVID tests, she said, but they still missed quite a bit of school.
During walk-throughs of campuses in the district, Martinez has seen the steps that teachers and school administrators take to keep the virus from spreading at school. She’s confident school leaders are doing everything they can to minimize exposures and keep students in school, she said. But despite those efforts, students continue to be exposed to the virus both at school and elsewhere. Martinez said she knows parents worry about the amount of instruction their kids miss when they have to stay home.
The number of students and school staff in quarantine has dropped over the past few weeks. On Oct. 8, the district reported 1,682 active quarantines. On Sept. 3, that figure was 5,894. Martinez said she hopes that number will continue to decline once COVID-19 vaccines are authorized for younger children.
Still, Martinez said she wants to see the district get the remote conferencing option up and running. That option could be valuable in the future, when weather forces the district to close schools, she said. And in the near term, even if quarantines continue to decline, the district will still need ways to keep students connected after they’ve been exposed to the virus, she said.
“I don’t think that COVID is going anywhere anytime soon, unfortunately,” she said.