Southwest Austin | January 2021

2 0 2 1 S P E C I A L E D I T I O N

D R I P P I N G S P R I N G S DEEP DIVE While less than 22% of Austin ISD families have opted for in-person classes as of Jan. 8, Dripping Springs ISD has seen a majority of its students return to campus. Karen Kidd, DSISD assistant superintendent for learning and innovation, said the number of students attending in-person classes has increased as the school year has progressed. Attendance rates across the district are consistent with numbers in recent years. Kidd said the district saw an increase in the fall in the number of students who fail one or more classes as virtual and in-person learners have felt the impacts of the pandemic.

learning has varied greatly depending on students’ age, maturity, interests and previous comfort level with using technology. Students who relied on additional support prior to the pandemic may have had their struggles amplied. Delia Castillo has three children learning virtually. Her oldest, Bella, is a sophomore at The University of Texas. Although she misses the social aspect of in-person learning and dislikes online classes, Bella said she has learned how to work on the new platform and is excelling. Castillo said her son, Santiago, a junior and student athlete at Bowie High School, has been less motivated this year, especially without participating in sports. However, she said he understands how important grades are heading into his nal year of high school and, ultimately, college. But Castillo said the spring 2020 semester was a “lost cause” for her seventh-grade son, Benito, who has beendiagnosedwithdyslexia andattentiondecit hyperactivity disorder. While things have gotten better during the current school year, she said his success has been directly correlated with how much eort she has put into monitoring his assignments. The inability to interact with classmates in a traditional setting has aected

Newell said she hopes AISD’s eorts to provide technology, Wi-Fi and other resources to all students in the district will continue to help more students from low-income families stay connected. “We have devices for every student now. That certainly was not the case 12 months ago, and I think it is bringing greater equity to student learning experiences,” she said. Still, Grith said he has seen the past year play out dierently in low-income communities than it has in auent areas. Children of auent families are able to access learning spaces more easily, are more likely to have parents working from home who can provide help, and are more likely to be able to get additional help, including private tutoring, Grith said. “Schools in Texas are underfunded, and real solutions would come from having additional advisers and mental health resources to support all students,” he said. Attendance rates in AISD have declined by 2.7% from this year to last, with more dramatic declines seen at secondary and Title I schools. Increasing attendance depends, in part, on creating stronger student-teacher relationships, Newell said.

Enrollment breakdown*


in-person learners


virtual learners


Attendance overview

“Teachers are being more diligent than ever to be in contact with their students, to see why they weren’t able to get on their device, or even just to check in,” she said. “We have a long way to go to get things perfect, but that has beena priority.” Sarah Leah Santillanes, chair of the Department of Teacher Preparation at Huston-Tillotson University, said that students

100% 75%


Benito, and some of the negative feedback on assignments has added to his anxiety, she said. “It’s really hard to make sure kids like him get what they need,” Castillo said. “His teachers are doing their best, but for someone like my son, sitting on a computer for seven hours is not going to work.” Awidening equity divide




25% 0 50%




Enrollment trends

2019-20 2020-21

7,210 7,332

who connect with at least one of their instructors are more likely to attend class and succeed. Many


of those connections have been stunted this year, she said, but teachers in low-income areas who can reach a student, even over Zoom, will have a noticeable impact in the long run. Relling gaps Educators and parents cannot say denitively what the long-lasting eects of the pandemic will be on students. However, students are still scheduled to take State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests this spring. Although schools and districtswill not be graded on the results, the STAAR tests will be used to track the losses during the pandemic, according to the Texas Education Agency. Santillanes said students and teachers across the country have been learning as they go since the pandemic started but are nowadapting and improving, a sign that losses could be mitigated this spring. “Last spring, you had educators that have been in the classroom forever and aren’t comfortable with technology who were scrambling,” she said. “As time has gone on, we’ve slowly learned how to manage it.” Newell said AISD teachers continue to prioritize lessons essential to carry into the next school year

and are preparing to reteach some concepts students may have missed in order to get students caught up. Teachers have alsobeendirected to allowmakeupwork to prove concepts have been learned. For students who do fail a course, she said the district will look at each case individually to determine if a grade level or class should be repeated. Aspects of the virtual platform are also here to stay beyond the pandemic, she said, and online tools can help provide additional support to students. Grith said he believes it is possible for students to bounce back, and any additional state funding would be key. With that funding, districts could introduce newprograms, additional resources and investments in technology that could improve the student experience even beyond the current school year. “Unlesswe are equity centric andwe’re really focusing our resources to help the schools that need it most, then we’re just going to be perpetuating this,” he said.

Breakthrough Central Texas, an Austin nonprot that works with students who aim to be the rst in their families to attend college, has been focusing this year on how the pandemic has aected dierent students across the region. “Educators are saying it will have a generational impact on academic success for K-12 students,” Executive Director Michael Grith said. “They’re predicting up to a year’s worth of learning loss at certaingrade levels for ourmost vulnerablestudents.” He said the pandemic has impacted those students Breakthrough Central Texas serves—traditionally, individualsofcolorwhocomefromlow-incomeschools that receive federal Title I funding—by highlighting barriers of health, economic and technology that place students and families under considerable stress. “It’s undeniable that virtual learning has been a necessary pivot that districts have oered and that families are choosing,” Grith said. “And it’s undeniable that virtual learning adds additional barriers to equity and additional barriers for access and engagement for some families and students.”

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