As Austin ISD opened its campuses to students in August, families found themselves in the familiar position of wondering how the district would handle health and safety as coronavirus cases once again surged in Austin.

AISD began the summer by saying it was “all-in on in-class learning” following the failure of House Bill 1468, which would have allowed districts to continue receiving state funding for students only enrolled in virtual classes. But by the end of July, considerations had changed: As Travis County crossed into Stage 5 COVID-19 risk territory July 30, AISD announced it would offer a virtual learning program for its students in kindergarten to sixth grade, those too young to be eligible for the vaccine.

Then on Aug. 9, AISD took the step of requiring masks on all campuses, following Dallas ISD’s lead in defiance of an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott banning such mandates. In doing so, it met the demands of a majority of parents; in a survey sent out by the district, 80% of respondents said their children would wear masks at school.

“In a society where interests conflict, there can be no absolute response that will rest with all constituents and stakeholders,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said at the special meeting where the board of trustees voted to require masks. “If I err, I must err on the side of ensuring that we have been overly cautious.”

Students enrolled in virtual classes began Aug. 24, behind the in-person start date of Aug. 17—not dissimilar from fall 2020, when the start of school was pushed back into September.

But for all that feels reminiscent of last fall, time has passed, and with it, harsh realities have risen to the surface. In that time, the anxiety and disruption of COVID-19 to students’ learning environments had a measurable effect, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. TEA estimates students on average lost 5.7 months of instructional value last year in what it calls the “COVID-19 slide”—3.2 months more than the typical learning loss students experience over the summer.

As AISD navigates the challenges of ushering students back to class safely during another surge of COVID-19 driven by the contagious delta variant, it also has plans to regain academic ground—and avoid losing more of it.

Accelerated instruction

While TEA has embraced the term “learning loss,” members of AISD’s administration have emphatically pushed back against it.

“We’re very much committed to not starting the school year making students feel like they’re at a deficit,” Assistant Superintendent of Academics Erin Brown-Anderson told Community Impact Newspaper. “We’re trying to reframe it as, ‘We have all had an incredible experience over the last year, and we’ve learned things we wouldn’t have learned otherwise.’”

AISD, like districts across Texas, saw a higher rate of students fall short of grade-level expectations on 2021 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness results compared to 2019, when the exams were last administered. Across third through eighth grade, AISD students performed poorer than the state average on math exams, as did middle school reading students.

However, moving into the school year, Brown-Anderson said the district has plans to look deeper than STAAR results to gauge where students are academically.

“It’s just one data point in a set of many,” she said. “We need to do some additional work and conversation with those individual students to find out where they are really and what skills are missing.”

The Texas Legislature also passed bills during this year’s session funding learning recovery efforts for the year and setting instructional policies to counter learning loss. House Bill 4545 mandated that students who failed STAAR exams receive intensive tutoring in the following year—or be assigned to the highest-performing teacher in the next grade. Districts are asked to use an “acceleration” model rather than a remediation one, catching students up as they simultaneously learn grade-level content.

“[Remediation] is more focused on a deficit way of looking at learning, where we’re going to fill in these missing gaps. With acceleration, you’re kind of doing that, but you’re doing it in a way where you’re not limiting the exposure to on-grade level content,” Brown-Anderson said.

Virtual concerns

While many parents rejoiced at the option to enroll their children virtually, the district’s virtual program does present challenges, including funding.

3,476 students registered to attend school virtually this fall, just over 4.6% of AISD’s projected enrollment of around 75,000. That will come at a steep cost to the district, which will foot the entire $10,100 bill for each virtual student, for a total of around $35.11 million. That cost includes $15.64 million in withheld state funding, around $4,500 per students. AISD said Aug. 11 it tentatively planned to fund the program with federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds. The district expects to receive $155 million in one-time ESSER funds soon once the TEA approves an application AISD submitted in July.

Virtual learning also presents academic challenges. According to the TEA, students in districts with at least 76% virtual learning struggled most on STAAR tests this year. Some 82.9% of attendance at AISD was virtual at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester.

“While I think Texas teachers responded heroically to the remote instruction environment, it was just a very difficult environment to teach in and to support students [in],” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said in a June presentation.

Unlike last school year, teachers this semester are assigned either to virtual or in-person instruction and are not asked to manage students in multiple environments concurrently—a task Elizalde called “nearly impossible” for teachers at the Aug. 4 town hall. Virtual learners receive a blend of synchronous and asynchronous instruction, with both whole-class and small-group activities.

These changes, while celebrated by teachers, have given some parents pause. Tim Hayden, a parent of a fourth grader at Brentwood Elementary School, said his son’s pairing with a Brentwood teacher during virtual learning last year helped his son feel more engaged. Hayden had decided to send his son back to campus this fall even before the virtual learning plan was announced so that he could reforge social connections with friends, but he said knowing virtual students are not guaranteed this year to be taught by a home campus teacher “affirmed” his decision.

Likewise, Casis Elementary School parent Hedy Donelly said a new format would take away the benefits her daughter saw in virtual learning last year.

“Our daughter didn’t set foot on the Casis campus, but still had her best year yet academically. She built a strong relationship with her homeroom teacher and friends via one-on-one teacher time and in small breakout groups. If we could do this again for the fall semester, I would feel better about the online option,” Donelly said.

Brown-Anderson said the district’s current virtual option benefits from the lessons of last year, though. For instance, teachers offered feedback that students’ academic performance suffered in proportion to the amount of time they spend sitting in front of their screen, so this year’s curriculum will prioritize hands-on activities while still utilizing the district’s online BLEND platform. The virtual curriculum will also mirror the in-person curriculum, so in the event that on-campus students are exposed to COVID-19 and have to quarantine, they will be able to temporarily follow along virtually.

“We’re really hopeful that with some of the tools that we’re putting in place for accelerated learning and to support progress monitoring, that our virtual students will be successful as well,” she said.

Caring for the ‘whole child’

As students make their way back to class, physical health and academic performance are not the only concerns AISD is monitoring. The district has also amplified its focus on social and emotional wellness as many return to campus for the first time in a year and a half. Twyla Williams, director of counseling for the district, said many students are experiencing trauma and grief due the pandemic and February’s winter storm.

“We want to acknowledge where our students have been and where they are, and then where we want them to go,” she said.

In practice, Williams said that includes having administrators and teachers check in on students on an emotional level in the course of morning meetings and class activities. Brown-Anderson has worked closely with the counseling staff, she said, to integrate academic and emotional well-being in a focus on the “whole child.”

“They’re going to be readjusting, many of them, to an environment they haven’t been in in a while. We talked to some students at the end of last year, and one of them said, ‘I hope they don’t expect us to remember how to have a conversation,’ and that really stuck with me,” Brown-Anderson said.

Maggie Quinlan contributed to this report.