This time of year is typically filled with back-to-school excitement. Students dust off backpacks, pencils and binders from closets. Families flock to retailers to spend hours wandering around the “Back-to-School” sections, all to make sure students are prepared for their first day and beyond. 

However, this year feels a little strange. “Back-to-school” has had a completely different meaning, as most school districts across the country start remotely for at least the first few weeks. Texas Education Agency (TEA) officials have granted districts authority to devise their own reopen plans. Houston ISD plans on teaching remotely for at least the first six weeks. Spring ISD is allowing parents to choose whether their child will be in the “safety-first in-person” section or the “empowered learning at-home” section. However, district officials have determined that it is not safe for anyone to come into school until September 11. Humble ISD started in-person classes for 35,000 students on August 24 — one of the first districts in the region to do so.

In this time of uncertainty, parents and educators around the country are left wondering: will students actually be able to learn remotely this fall? Will virtual school be an effective way for kids to learn, or will they fall behind?

Thanks to 12 weeks of survey data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau during the initial period of online learning following COVID-19-related school closures, we can analyze how learning disruptions impacted households and track how education changed during the beginning of the pandemic. While we can’t predict the future, we can use data about previous remote learning efforts to identify and understand the challenges that may lie ahead.

The more we understand these educational changes and their implications, the more we can do to ensure all students in our region continue to learn during the pandemic. 

Learning “looks” different during a pandemic

The Trump Administration declared COVID-19 a national emergency in mid-March. Soon thereafter, schools closed for a couple of weeks and then moved to online learning when much of the country shut down. The first week of pulse surveys — as schools were in the middle of their spring semester — indicated 67% of classes were moved to distance learning and 31% of classes were cancelled altogether. While fewer students took summer classes, they continued to experience substantial changes to schedules as the virus continued to spread, and schools remained closed.

According to Pulse Survey data, 64% of classes taking place in the Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA)1 during the week of July 9 were moved to a distance learning format. An additional 35% were completely cancelled, higher than the cancellation rate the week of April 23 (31%). These data align with trends in other major metros and the United States as a whole, representing major adjustments students and teachers must make across the nation.

Education is now a household activity, though only part-time

In a typical pre-COVID-19 school day, neither child nor parent spent much time at home working on intentional education activities beyond homework. In our new reality, this has changed drastically.

The graph below compares the amount of time children and parents in Houston spent on education at home during the week of July 9 to other similar regions like Dallas-Ft. Worth Metro (fourth-largest metro in the nation), Greater Los Angeles (second largest school district in the country), Texas, and the U.S.

Houston-area parents reported spending around four hours teaching their children at home in the past seven days. Similarly, children spent around one hour learning with a teacher and almost four hours learning on their own. This totals nine hours of learning during the week of the survey — less than an hour and a half per weekday. 

While this is substantially less time than we’d expect for a regular school day, it’s on trend with rates for Texas and the U.S. overall. Notably, parents and students surveyed in Greater Los Angeles spent almost double the amount of time learning than those in Houston.

These data reflect a snapshot from early July when the majority of students were on summer break, but students in Houston spent an inadequate amount of time on school even when it was officially in session. During the week of April 23 (when learning hours peaked), students studied for 17 hours — approximately three and a half hours per weekday — far below the usual eight hours students spend at school.

The steady decline in hours dedicated to learning, especially during the academic year, potentially reflects increasingly negative feelings parents and children have toward online classes. A national poll found 42% of parents are concerned that COVID-19 will negatively impact their child’s education. Sitting in the same spot at home staring at a computer screen alone most likely quickly lost its appeal to students and parents. Online schooling leaves kids missing socializing with friends, individualized help from teachers, and designated time to move around or play. As the pandemic wears on, parents and students may be losing patience with the numerous challenges associated with at-home education.

“42% of parents are concerned that COVID-19 will harm their child’s education.”

Teachers share this wary sentiment toward online education. A national survey found that 75% of teachers reported their students were less engaged in remote class than in-person class, and an NPR/Ipsos poll found 84% of teachers assert that online learning will create opportunity gaps among students. With such a rapid pivot to a brand-new form of instruction, teachers did not have the opportunity to learn and effectively use virtual teaching platforms. Teachers are feeling overwhelmed, most commonly requesting “strategies to keep students engaged and motivated to learn remotely.” Simultaneously, they also want to ensure safety for their students and themselves.

Households face significant challenges adapting to online learning

Pulse Survey data suggest the extent to which education has become a household activity might vary by household income. According to Week 11 (July 9) survey data, Houston households with annual incomes below $50,000 reported spending the most time on educational activities. This pattern was observed in each of the previous 10 weeks as well. 

While this appears promising, preliminary research indicates that the move to online learning will disproportionately hurt students from low-income homes. The digital divide between low- and high-income households (and schools) is a major contributor to disparities in learning loss. Schools and homes without adequate technological resources face major obstacles to successful online learning.

Online classes necessitate children have access to a computer (or digital device beyond a smartphone) and internet access at home. This is not guaranteed for all students, of course. Approximately 6% of households in the three-county region don’t own a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, and another 11% have only a smartphone and no other type of computing device — totaling 346,400 households — according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Recent Pulse Survey data reinforce these lagging statistics. Households in Greater Houston report less access to computers/laptops than those in Dallas and Los Angeles metros as well as state and national levels. Houstonian are least likely to “always” have a device available and most likely to “never” have a device available for educational purposes compared to these major metros. Given the urban nature of our region, Houstonians’ access to the internet tends to be slightly higher than the rate for the state. Still, 12% of households (245,800) in the three-county region have no internet subscription at all, and additional 13% (274,400) have internet access through a cellular data plan only. 

“346,400 households in the three-county area have no computing device other than a smartphone.”

The expansive digital divide in Texas is well-known, and many school districts and nonprofits have worked to bridge the gap. Dallas addressed its students’ lack of access to devices and internet with Operation Connectivity which shares the cost with the state. This operation proved so successful that Governor Abbott launched it throughout Texas with the help of the Texas Education Agency in the beginning of May. However, Houston lags behind, with about a quarter of households reporting receiving a device from the school or district.

The percentage of students who “never” have access to a device for educational purposes in Houston rose from less than two percent in Week 1 (April 23) to more than seven percent in Week 11 (July 9), suggesting students have less access to devices during the summer, potentially widening learning loss. Meanwhile, in Dallas and Los Angeles metros, the proportion of students without access to a device fell during the same time period.

Three lessons that support a more successful Fall semester online

Failing our region’s students is not an option for any of us. That’s why we’ve collected lessons gleaned from the data, established research, and practitioners that will support a successful fall semester for our youth.

  1. Focus on the most vulnerable.

As we enter a new school year amidst a pandemic, pre-existing challenges are only likely to be exacerbated, particularly for students from low-income Black, or Latino households, with disabilities, or with limited English language skills. An analysis from consulting firm McKinsey found the average student could fall seven months behind at least. Compounding challenges, these students come from the groups who have faced the worst public health outcomes of the virus — it is likely they may have lost someone to the virus. We must support policies and programs that prioritize the most vulnerable students in our region.

  1. Expand access to technology and the internet.

The region has come together to ensure students have access to the technology they need during this time of remote learning. HISD has established Digital Learning Centers where students without reliable tech access can go, but those who are concerned about the virus may steer clear. Consistent access to reliable, modern technology is critical to learning in general but more acutely now as we are still in the throes of a pandemic. We applaud the substantial efforts districts have made to support all students. 

  1. Support teachers and school staff.

Even before the pandemic, schools faced significant challenges. One reason schools and districts are struggling to adapt to virtual instruction is they themselves lack adequate resources. Texas spent an average of $9,375 per pupil in the 2017-2018 school year, 23% less than the national average of $12,200. 

“Texas spent 23% less per pupil than the national average in the 2017-18 school year.”

Teachers are essential front-line workers, and we must support them as they embark on the substantial and significant mission of educating students in an unprecedented time of simultaneous public health, racial equity, economic, and political crises.

1 The Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is a geography boundary designated by the Federal Office of Management and Budget that includes the following nine counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, and Waller.

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