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In Southwest Houston, Alief ISD Is A Test Case For Virtual Back-To-School

Alief ISD has largely sidestepped heated debates over in-person or remote instruction by deciding early on it would go virtual.

More than 40 percent of students in the Alief Independent School District -- about 20,000 children -- are enrolled in bilingual education, English as a second language or other second language programs.
Students in the Alief Independent School District in 2019.

There's a raging debate in Houston and across Texas this summer over how teachers and students should head back to school.

In southwest Houston, however, the Alief Independent School District has largely sidestepped those debates.

Early on, the district's leaders decided school would resume Aug. 6 with only virtual learning, and there is no date set for any return to in-person classes.

Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers and School Board President Ann Williams spike to Houston Public Media about their decision process and how the new school year has started.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Why did you decide to go this route?

Ann Williams: I believe that we were brave enough to go out. And to, as I keep saying, put a stake in the ground and make a decision and own up to it and move forward with it. And because we were able to do that, I think it brought a level of calmness to our parents as well as to our staff on how to embrace this reopening process.

HD Chambers: To use the phrase how did we sidestep some of these debates that are going on now, I think the key thing we did was we said we’re starting virtual early. And when I say early, it was in early June, mid June. And that did bring closure, as Ann mentioned, that did bring closure to parents and staff.

Was it because there wasn’t a lot of clarity on the health side of things?

Chambers: One was the health conditions. Even at that point, our county officials were beginning to see an uptick in the number of positive cases and the community transmission and community spread in Alief. It’s seemed very clear that once this spike in numbers began occurring, and then I saw the ZIP codes that they were occurring in, and those ZIP codes were in large part in our district, in our community.

It’s been about a week of back to school — or back to “virtual” school in Alief now. How’s it going?

Chambers: I think I’d give us a good B+, A-. I really would. There’s really two things I think we have to improve upon. One, we still have students that have not enrolled, that we have on our roster that we’re still reaching out to. But, that’s true of any school year. Every year we started in person, we still have to chase students down for a variety of reasons. But that would be one area we’ve got some work to do. The second area I would say we’ve got some work to do is just making sure that our teachers and our students, as they deliver instruction, as the students receive it, not only are the students engaged, but are they demonstrating that they’re mastering the work? In this virtual environment, it’s a different animal. If you’ve got them in front of you in a classroom, you’re able to measure some type of, "OK, are they getting it or not?" A little different virtually.

I don’t have to tell you there’s a huge concern about the digital divide, making sure students have the devices they need, the high quality internet, also that teachers have the online, digital resources. So, can you tell me how Alief is making sure that all students have the digital access with 100% virtual school?

Chambers: We were able to identify, to a large extent, what percent of our student population and our teaching population did not have reliable internet access or reliable devices in the spring. The problem was there was nothing we could do about it then. I mean, we didn’t have the resources at time. So, through continuing surveys of families, parents and staff members, we began to place large orders, literally issuing purchase orders, for devices. This became basically a supply and demand issue, getting our orders in before everyone else did.

To date, we have received roughly 24-25,000 devices and 16,000 hotspots — reliable 4G hotspots– that we felt, based on our best information, could accommodate the most needy families who needed this equipment. And we were able to distribute it and we were able to get it received into the district and distributed for Aug. 6.

With online learning, it’s not just about the devices and the internet, but oftentimes students, especially younger students, they need someone at home who’s going to help guide them. What are you doing to support families or adults in the household, especially families who may be newer immigrants or who don’t speak English?

Williams: One of the wonderful things that Alief has always had in place was what we call our parent liaisons. We have a family engagement program that is always reaching out to our parents, because we know that there are some challenges there. You know, those individuals are still engaged with with our families. Like you said, it’s more than devices and things like that. It is training, it’s a learning curve. So all of us — and I do mean everyone in the world — is going through a digital learning curve.

But I’m going to say something that was really funny. You know, I’ve had several parents contact me and said, "What are you guys doing? How could you do this? I don’t know anything about logging on!" And I challenged them to go and take that device and give it to your child and let them show you what that they can do. And sure enough, they were just wowed with the fact of, you know, while the parents did not understand, because we had already integrated this into our classrooms daily, the students had knowledge and they knew how to access.

I’m curious for both of you, what’s your biggest concern about this new school year? But also what does success look like for this school year? Is it the same? Is it something different?

Chambers: There’s a rhythm to going to school. You get into a rhythm, even young children, there’s a rhythm that they get into — getting up, having breakfast, going to school…That rhythm has been disrupted and in my opinion, just in five days in Alief, we are beginning to establish a rhythm for families, for teachers. And they’re adjusting to it and some of them are embracing it. And some are struggling with it. But my fear is that we get into a rhythm where learning starts taking place, and we try to transition to in-person maybe a little sooner than we should. And then you have to close school back down and repivot back (to virtual learning). That’s a concern I have because that rhythm I’m keep talking about has a lot of impact on students’ progress and how they do in school.

What does success look like? It’s going be just the opposite. When we get students back in person, without disruption. And we have those students and staff members who have demonstrated that virtual environment is the best way for them to learn or teach. And we’re able to address both of those populations so that they both receive sound quality education in the best environment and in the most equitable way for both the teacher and for the student.

Williams: What success looks like is our students going back into the classroom, but with everyone feeling safe about that. What success looks like is that even though we are doing this digitally, virtually, that we can mitigate some of the learning gaps that have occurred. What it looks like is students having that special place for education that they had before.

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