Education News

Houston Parents Face Back-To-School Dilemmas Amid Conflicting Messages From Leaders

“I don’t think anybody feels 100% great about the decision that they’re making, because what we all want is just to return to school in a normal environment, right?”

Christina Quintero said she would love to have her children, Valentina and Fabian, back in the classroom at their east Houston elementary school. But she doesn’t want to risk their health or their teachers, including her son’s special education teacher.

Virtual school hasn't been easy for Christina Quintero and her two children. Her son Fabian has a hard time focusing without his regular routine in the classroom. He's 5 years old, has autism and is about to start kindergarten.

“My son, who has special needs, has a 15-minute span on learning. We’ve tried doing the in-home therapy online. And it tanked. It did not work at all,” Quintero said.

Her daughter Valentina is headed to first grade and has shown signs of anxiety.

“She goes, ‘Mom, I feel my heart heavy. I just feel sad, I don’t want to do anything.’ I’m like, ‘Well, let’s go, you know, outside, let’s play outside, let’s go swimming in your little pool or something.’ ‘Mom, it sounds like fun, but I just, I don’t want to do it,” she recounted.

Still, Quintero prefers her children learn at home this fall. She'll coach them as best she can with a cellphone and a tablet, though she's worried they'll lose their internet since her husband's out of work as a welding inspector.

“I've never felt like online would work for my family, but I feel like it’s the right choice right now because it’s the responsible thing to do as a parent, not just for my kids, but for my neighbors' kids, for my nieces and nephews, for other children in the community,” Quintero said.

What also weighs on her decision: the statistics that show the coronavirus disproportionately impacts communities of color, like her own near the Port of Houston, which has primarily Black and Hispanic residents.

Like Quintero, just over half of families in the Houston Independent School District want to continue their children’s education with virtual learning this fall, according to a survey conducted earlier this summer. But another 47% of families said they agree with in-person instruction if class sizes are smaller.

The numbers reflect the divide among parents and policymakers in Texas about the best way to go back to school. The coronavirus outbreak in Greater Houston and much of Texas has made parents even more anxious.

“I don’t think anybody feels 100% great about the decision that they’re making, because what we all want is just to return to school in a normal environment, right?” said Suzi Kennon, president of the Texas PTA.

Making those decisions harder, Kennon said, have been the conflicting messages from state and local leaders about back to school. Gov. Greg Abbott has stressed local school boards decide how to reopen classrooms and says local health officials can close schools only after an outbreak.

The Texas Education Agency also changed its stance on funding this summer, initially guaranteeing full funding for online learning and then later saying schools wouldn’t get that full funding for virtual school after a certain timeframe.

The state’s largest school district surveyed parents earlier this summer and found a wide variety in preferences for back-to-school.

Many school districts in Greater Houston won't reopen brick-and-mortar classrooms until after Labor Day. Some districts have decided to teach remotely for weeks, including the Fort Bend and Houston independent school districts. Others will offer face-to-face instruction much sooner, starting with Humble ISD.

“I believe that every parent has the right to choose for their own children,” said Ryan Cotten, who has three children enrolled in Humble public scools. He started a Facebook group to advocate for in-person learning in Harris County, which has more than 1,500 members. They recently rallied outside the district’s headquarters in northeast Harris County for the Humble school board to approve a return to the classroom this month. The board voted to allow in-person learning starting Aug. 24 for parents who choose that option.

“I believe that the school is a safe place for my child to return with the proper safety measures in place,” Cotten said. “But there are parents who don’t feel safe and I absolutely respect that.”

Other options parents are exploring: withdrawing from public school altogether and homeschooling, and organizing mini schools called learning pods. That trend has drawn controversy because only certain families can afford to hire tutors, and it could widen gaps in opportunity for Texas children.

Kennon with the Texas PTA has written Abbott a letter, asking for more parent involvement in back-to-school plans, and to give school leaders the financial certainty they need in uncertain times.

“We tell people to quarantine for 14 (days), right? But we’re only going to shut the campus down for five for fear of funding,” Kennon said. “And so it just feels like those decisions need to be made by local school boards and superintendents, and they need to be able to make those decisions based on safety as their first concern, not funding.”

HISD welcomed educators and campus leaders back for the new school year with a car parade in the parking lot of the district’s headquarters, a socially distanced precaution due to the ongoing pandemic.

Safety remains the top concern for many parents like Robert Turner. He's an oil-and-gas manager turned stay-at-home dad. This summer he's tried to keep his two girls, ages 5 and 10, engaged. One of their favorite games has been making movies online featuring the animated children’s character Peppa Pig.

Turner said he’s relieved they'll have virtual school until mid-October, though he said it will be tough. Last spring, it was hard to keep his soon-to-be fourth grader motivated.

“There’s almost that feeling all over again, like, ‘Man, you know, I don’t want to have to do this.’ But it’s in the best interest of our kids,” Turner said.

He said that he’s monitored back-to-school plans with a lot of anxiety, since the research is still emerging about the coronavirus’ impact on children. He worries if schools reopen too soon, they'll shut down all over again.

Turner believes the ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus in Houston makes it too dangerous for kids and adults on campus.

“You can't just put blinders on and say that’s not happening,” Turner said. “It’s a real thing that’s happening and it affects all of our health.”

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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