Fort Bend ISD announced July 13 that it would begin the 2020-21 school year exclusively with online learning, just days after a previous announcement that coursework would be a combination of online and in-person instruction for those who felt safe doing the latter.
In the weeks since then, some FBISD parents have expressed disappointment and criticism regarding the district’s decision to hold off in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though it is in line with other Houston-area districts and statewide guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
“We had a choice, and it made sense because it allowed each family to make it. There are families willing to take what they think is a personal risk for that value, and they’re not being allowed,” said David Lineman, the father of two FBISD students. “Just the choice is what we want to bring back, because we don’t understand why we went from A to B in just a few days.”
Lineman is the head of the recently-formed Fort Bend ISD Parents Association, which has also begun an online petition protesting what they call the district’s unilateral decision to switch gears without listening to the input of the community. FBISD superintendent Charles Dupre said the district plans to start the school year Aug. 17 with online instruction, which is how every school district in Texas completed the previous school year.
The TEA is allowing public school districts to utilize online-only instruction for up to eight weeks after school starts. Houston ISD has announced it will start school Sept. 8 and keep its campuses closed to students until at least Oct. 19.
Last week, the public health authorities for Houston and Harris County issued a joint order requiring all public and non-religious private schools in their jurisdictions to suspend in-person classes and other school activities until at least Sept. 8. As of press time, such an order had not been issued in Fort Bend County.
“Parents can’t afford to stay home and essentially homeschool their kids – and they’ve made it a requirement that you’re basically going to have to be a teacher at your house,” Lineman said. “There’s been a general frustration (among parents) and movement to try getting our voices heard.”
As of Tuesday morning, Fort Bend County health officials had reported 6,679 cases of COVID-19. At least 90 have died from the infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus strain, while 2,855 patients have recovered.
“Since they reversed that decision, most parents I have spoken with feel that they are being ignored and administration has essentially rubber stamped this data from a couple of people at the county level,” Lineman said. “There are a number of us who believe the COVID risk is just not significant enough to do this much economic and psychological damage to kids.”
Dupre said the decision to delay in-person instruction was made based on a survey of parents, faculty and staff members throughout the district.
“As conditions began to ramp up with the pandemic, and more teachers indicated they were not going to come back to work if we did face-to-face, we really took the only path forward that we could,” Dupre said Monday. “If someone believes we’re making decisions in isolation, they’re not paying attention to just how engaged we truly are with parents, community, staff and medical professionals.”
According to Lineman and others, their primary concern with the lack of in-person instruction is that their children will not get the social interaction they need in order to develop beyond just classroom and textbook instruction.
“(My son) can do the schoolwork just fine, I’m not really concerned about that. My worry is the social aspect of it and what it’s doing to my child’s head to be stuck in the house all the time,” said Jeff, the father of an FBISD student who asked to be identified only by his first name. “The CDC has said it’s important for kids to go back to school – it’s one of those pros and cons type of deals that at some point we’ve got to think about what it’s doing to our kids to keep them inside four walls for a month.”
In response, Dupre insisted the choice about in-person classes has not been removed – simply delayed. The district is planning to phase in face-to-face learning when it is safe to do so, and previously had parents fill out an online form denoting their choice of whether to return their children to campus or stay home.
Over the last several months, Dupre and other district officials have conducted three Zoom meetings where they take questions from concerned parents and teachers with regards to safely returning to school. However, Lineman and the other father claim that their questions – and those of other concerned parents – have been glossed over during those sessions, leading to a more troubling concern. He said they have been pushing for an in-person dialogue.
“That lack of transparency makes it even more troubling because we feel like things are getting hidden and there’s a certain agenda. The problem is that those Zoom meetings are the only input parents can really have,” Lineman said. “… We’re trying to find a way to make things work – even that would be good enough. But that request isn’t being heard and emails aren’t being responded to.”
Dupre said he is open to discussion with parents, but cautioned that wheels are already in motion for the first day of virtual learning Aug. 17. He added that due to social distancing guidelines, in-person sessions might not be workable in the short time frame.
“I never close the door to parent engagement, but the plan is in motion and we’re moving forward,” he said. “If someone reaches out to me we’ll consider those things, but the odds are we’re not going to do any face-to-face meetings.”
For some, the problem with the online-only model is their students’ educational well-being.
“My oldest has a learning disability, so (they) need extra help and accommodations when working. Both of my kids, when they did the online learning, are not so good on the computer with that sort of stuff,” said an FBISD mother of two who asked to remain anonymous. “They need the interaction and one-on-one time to ask questions.”
The mother, who has one seventh-grader and one high school freshman, said the online model has not properly addressed the needs of special education students such as her oldest child, who needs extra instruction for some subjects.
“(My child) barely passed, because if he didn’t understand something it took several days to meet up and get a conference with the teacher – he’s trying to figure out what he missed or got wrong, and they’ve already moved on to something else,” she said. “…They even told me, ‘Mom, we’re not learning anything.’ I just want the choice, because my choice would be to send them.”
Dupre said those students will receive phone calls from staff who will work directly with parents of special education students to create a safe plan for them based on their specific needs.
“We are going to have many of our special education students in our buildings to make sure their needs are met because of how unique their needs are,” he said.
Among other concerns for parents are the fact that working families will need to either stay home or find a tutor for their child – when many want to get back to work to mitigate the financial impact of COVID-19 – and that ultimately the district’s decisions have run contrary to their claims of looking out for students, instead putting teachers and district employees at the forefront and leaving parents in the lurch.
“They’re saying they want to help the kids, but they want to do it within the model that’s best for them,” Jeff said. “They are not setting up the model to be what’s best for the kids. That’s my frustration with it.”
Dupre acknowledged Monday that he has received multiple emails and messages echoing a similar sentiment. And as a parent himself, he said he understands why parents and their families would be pushing for their own students’ best interests.
However, he said the district also has to make decisions for the safety of its nearly 80,000 students and 11,000 employees, which is why the decision to exclusively provide online instruction – at least initially – was the best option.
“For the parents who are frustrated, I completely understand. We’re here to serve our students. But I can’t serve my kids if the teachers can’t come to work, either out of fear or because of their own legitimate health concerns,” Dupre said. “There are many parents who have expressed the willingness to accept the risk – and I might, too, even as a professional. But if I don’t have enough teachers who feel comfortable doing that, I can’t have your child in my building. It comes down to whether we respect our teachers and value their opinions.”
For some parents, that priority is misplaced.
“I get that they’re going to do what they do, and that’s the way world works,” Jeff said. “But now it’s affecting my kid.”
Dupre said there is no easy solution amidst the COVID-19 pandemic or the chaos it has caused for both the district and its families. While he is sympathetic to concerns voiced by parents, Dupre said there is not a one-size-fits-all plan.
“It’s just not a black-and-white situation,” he said. “Unfortunately this is where we are, and we’re going to have navigate this.”