Clear Creek ISD changing education in response to COVID-19

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Keli Swann, a third-grade teacher at Hyde Elementary School, has been teaching students exclusively online.

At first, it was a challenge. Students had to learn not only the curriculum, but also how to learn virtually through Clear Connections, the remote learning program CCISD launched shortly after the pandemic began, Swann said.

“Many kids use computers to play, and they weren’t used to using it for work,” she said. “It was a huge learning curve for me as well.”

Now, after months of experience, Swann and her remaining 20 or so online students are in a “groove.” Students know how to use technology to virtually raise their hands; adjust their microphones, cameras and audio; and upload assignments online, Swann said.

However, it is not so easy for other teachers in the district, especially those who teach online and in-person classes simultaneously through a hybrid model. Students are struggling as well; like many other districts locally and even nationwide, officials are noticing learning loss due to the pandemic, especially among students learning virtually, said Steven Ebell, CCISD deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

These challenges prompted the CCISD board in late March to approve creating what will become a fully online school.

“We’re moving away from that hybrid model. That model is not sustainable for us,” Ebell said. “That has been an incredible challenge to manage both environments.”

Virtual academy

Pending state funding from the Texas Legislature, CCISD plans to launch Clear Connections Virtual School for all grade levels at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

Today, students can migrate between Clear Connections and in-person instruction every few weeks. As time goes on, more students are opting for in-person instruction.

In October, 25% of students were learning remotely. As of March, the number had dropped to 19%.

Similar trends are occurring nearby. Friendswood ISD had 13% remote students in the fall and has 6% as of March. At the start of the school year, Pearland ISD had half of its students online, but as of January, it is down to 32%, according to district data.

With Clear Connections Virtual Academy, there will be less fluctuation. Students who opt for the online school will commit to attending it for a full school year, officials said.

Students who want to enroll in Clear Connections Virtual School will have to unenroll from the campus to which they are zoned and enroll in the virtual academy as a “school of choice.” This online school may remain even after the pandemic ends, Ebell said.

In a survey of 340 remote students, parents and teachers, 52% indicated they would enroll in a full-time online learning program next year, CCISD Chief Communications Officer Elaina Polsen said.

“We do think there is a future for this,” Ebell said.

Clear Connections Virtual School students will still be able to participate in before- and after-school extracurricular activities at the school to which they are zoned. Additionally, the virtual school will allow for “self-paced electives,” virtual clubs, both synchronous and asynchronous learning, and its own class rank system and graduation ceremony. Virtual students would be held to the same academic standards as in-person students, officials said.

CCISD hosted webinars to provide more information to parents about the virtual academy, and enrollment closed in mid-April with parents from all grade levels signing their children up for Clear Connections Virtual School. CCISD is in the process of assessing how many teachers would be needed at each grade level to fully staff the all-online school, Senior Communications Specialist Sydney Hunt said.

The school is not guaranteed to become reality. If the state does not opt to fund virtual learning next school year, CCISD will nix the idea.

However, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood—who represents an area including the district and chairs the Senate Committee on Education—said he is confident the legislative session will result in funding for virtual schools, allowing CCISD’s plan.

Senate Bill 27, introduced by Taylor, is directly related to funding virtual schools, as is House Bill 1468. While Taylor believes most students perform better face to face, some thrive learning online, he said.

“There will be some funding for virtual schools; I can assure you of that,” Taylor said. “I certainly want to make sure we meet the needs of every child.“

There is already a precedent for this idea: Today, the Texas Education Agency provides online courses statewide through the Texas Virtual School Network, Taylor said.

If funding for localized virtual schooling is granted, the TEA will have requirements for a school district to be able to offer full-time virtual schools. For instance, a district would have to be high performing; officials do not want a district to teach students online if it struggles to teach them face to face, Taylor said.

Additionally, the intention of the bill is the TEA would measure virtual schools’ performance separately.

“These virtual schools will have their own ratings separate from traditional schools ... to make sure they’re doing a good job for those students,” Taylor said.

Learning loss

A factor in CCISD’s decision to create an online school is increasing failure rates, especially among online students, Ebell said.

In a typical year, CCISD sees about 9% of high school students fail two or more classes. This first semester, the amount was closer to 17%, Ebell said.

“That’s a significant increase in failure rate,” he said.

Additionally, the district has already noticed decreased performance in math and reading in lower grades.

“... We are concerned about learning loss,” Ebell said.

In CCISD, not everyone wants to return to on-campus instruction. In fact, some thrive learning exclusively online, and if those students were the ones who remained learning remotely, the virtual school could work, officials said.

“There’s a certain type of student that is successful in online learning,” Ebell said.

Swann agreed, noting some students are self-sufficient enough to succeed learning virtually.

“They can just learn [online] and be done with it,” she said.

Still, remote learners tend to struggle more. As of the third quarter of this school year, 30% of remote students were failing at least one class compared to 24% of in-person students, according to district data.

Higher failure rates among remote learners is not unique to CCISD.

In FISD, as of November, 29% of remote students were failing at least one class compared to only 8.5% of in-person students. In Pearland ISD, as of December, 13% of remote students were failing at least one class compared to 10% of in-person students, according to district data.

“It is a challenge [being] completely online,” Ebell said. “A screen is never going to be the same [as] if you and I were in the same room talking.”

CCISD officials, believing in-person learning to be more efficient, have encouraged parents to put their children back in schools, but ultimately, it is their choice, Ebell said.

The value of testing

Due to the pandemic, the TEA last school year waived its annual State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. These annual tests in part allow the TEA to measure districts on various factors, including student achievement and school progress.

This spring, STAAR has returned, and while some local districts believe it will give parents, students and the state the first accurate picture of how students are learning during a pandemic, others, including CCISD leaders, are not so excited.

CCISD officials indicated it is more important for teachers and students to use what little time remains of the school year to focus on curriculum than worry about the state assessment.

In-person attendance is required to take the STAAR, and those uncomfortable with that do not have to take the exams. With nearly 20% of CCISD’s students learning remotely, it is conceivable 20% of CCISD students will not take the STAAR, Ebell said.

“STARR is not as important to us,” he said. “Whether kids are in person or remote, we’re teaching that curriculum.”
By Jake Magee

Editor, Bay Area & Pearland/Friendswood

Jake has been a print journalist for several years, covering numerous beats including city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be the editor for and launch the Bay Area edition of Community Impact Newspaper. Today, he covers everything from aerospace to transportation to flood mitigation.