Following a summer of planning and adaptation to coronavirus guidelines, Conroe ISD welcomed more than 64,000 students back to physical and virtual classrooms Sept. 8 as the 2020-21 year kicked off.

Although some parents, educators and experts said they feel in-person education is an ideal model for learning, health and safety concerns related to COVID-19 are causing many students to remain virtual or carry additional emotional baggage this year. Schools and community members said they are working to ensure adequate resources are available for students’ mental and social well-being.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in person or if you are at home doing work remotely; we care about you and your whole health. And so you’re going to see investment in our curriculum, in our social and emotional learning, both online and in person,” Conroe ISD Superintendent Curtis Null said in an Aug. 24 livestream. “We understand that there has been a mental health strain that’s been associated with everything that’s been going on over these last few months, so we are going to work to make that happen.”

Pandemic pressures

Limiting the spread of COVID-19 has been a public health focus for districts and government and health officials since the spring. In that time, entities from schools to organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also emphasized returning to school as an important step to preserve children’s educational, physical and emotional progress.“We all need connections; we all need to feel like we belong. So I think that it’s vital that we know somebody cares about us and how we feel,” said Denise Cipolla, CISD’s coordinator for guidance and counseling.

Other concerns include increased isolation and lost social connections. Dr. Molly Lopez, the director of the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health and a research associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, said students and districts will face new challenges compared to the support typically provided through the in-school environment.

“We know that one of the things that’s really important to students’ mental health and their well-being generally is their connection to schools,” Lopez said. While schools shifted to distance-learning models this spring—and into the 2020-21 school year for around 23,000 CISD students opting to continue remote instruction—educators and family members also noted the downsides to the new model.

“You lose some of the socialization skills because of the environment. You’re also losing the feedback ... for a student who’s quiet, who may not talk—that interaction. Those are the things that are lost,” said Quinita Ogletree, a lecturer with the Texas A&M Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture.

Angela Yeh, a part-time pre-K teacher and CISD parent from the Lake Creek Forest community, said families and the district have been faced with tough choices this year to balance such concerns with the potential health downsides that come with a more disconnected school experience.

“My shy 6-year-old is starting the weirdest year yet doing online learning when she should be engaging her social anxieties and growing, learning, becoming,” Yeh said in an email. “We are, all of us, in a no-win situation.”

In Tomball ISD, the district’s student support team has emphasized social and emotional learning skills as part of its overall approach, said Nefertari Mundy, TISD assistant superintendent of strategic initiatives.

The district has held twice as much social-emotional learning training so far this year, including how to handle students that have experienced trauma and how to build relationships.“This time away from the building really allowed staff to become comfortable delivering services in a virtual world,” Mundy said.

Michael Webb, assistant superintendent of student support, said mental health training will be held for parents and community members Nov. 6, 20 and Dec. 8 this year.

In Magnolia ISD, Ben Petty, executive director of special services, said additional curriculum for K-12 students is in place for social and emotional learning as well as a Canvas page for parents.

“And then also, we’re doing what we call small group support days,” Petty said. “There’s a virtual component that parents have access to, and then we’ll continue to work toward those things in the curriculum on the small group support days.”

Readying resources

CISD officials said the district has invested in resources to ensure students can stay on the same curriculum track whether they return to campus or continue remote learning. In an August presentation, district staff said more than $5 million had been spent on remote learning technology, protective equipment and sanitization this year. The district is also receiving $1.37 million in reimbursements from the state and Montgomery County for thousands of laptops, tablets and internet hot spots through Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency’s Operation Connectivity remote learning initiative.

CISD teachers have also involved remote learners in more social interactions by speaking with them more about their lives, Cipolla said. Kim Earthman, the director of CISD Student Support Services, said another method of bringing students together has been through extracurricular activities that can link in-school and at-home students outside of traditional class hours.

The district’s counseling efforts have been a constant focus throughout the pandemic, Earthman said. A total of 158 counselors are available for in-person or online conferences—an increase of 10 since last year—and the staff is also developing new workshops for families to engage with.

“We provided, in the spring, resources and easy lessons for teachers and for parents to do in the home to address that social and emotional learning,” Earthman said. “We felt that was really important to help kids with those things they were going through and help parents to help their students.”

While the district is working to address those needs, some parents said they are still concerned about the possible social losses or missed connections their students could experience while learning off campus. Laurie Stiles, a resident of the Birnham Woods area in Spring and parent of two CISD students, said she appreciates some of the ways the district is handling health and social-emotional learning but believes there is still room to improve the district’s virtual support.

“I do believe that this is a significant risk and concern for online learning, particularly for those students who are shy or do not have many friends. ... I am significantly concerned,” Stiles said in an email. “There will be no relationships with teachers, no observations, and we parents have had their education dumped on our laps to deal with on our own.”

Community support

Lazaro Salguero, a CISD parent and northern Spring resident whose child enrolled in remote learning to start the year, said he has been pleased with the majority of the district’s efforts so far. He said he and some of his neighbors developed a plan to have their children socialize and play in their area, a strategy he hopes the district can expand.

“I think it would be great if schools would maybe add as an option to their students, to allow them to build relationships through the internet in a non-structured way,” he said.

Another of the district’s top efforts through its transition learning has been to provide all CISD families with the necessary tools and resources to tackle the 2020-21 year. CISD, as well as many other districts, has distributed tools including laptops and internet hot spots alongside essentials such as food and clothing over the past several months—efforts Cipolla said typically peak at the start of school and return from winter break.

“There has been food insecurity, and there has been basic needs the whole time now,” Cipolla said. “Through partnerships and collaborations within the community, none of our families have had to do without.”

Some of those outside resources include national organizations and local nonprofit options such as Tri-County Behavioral Healthcare and Yes to Youth Montgomery County Youth Services. In an August email, Adriana Gutierrez, Yes to Youth’s director of counseling services, said the crisis intervention and counseling organization has assisted students this year though its telehealth counseling options and new focused skill and support groups, as well as a 24-hour crisis hotline. In addition, Gutierrez said families can support children’s mental health at home.

“The biggest thing that students and families can do is create a healthy routine. Just as if they were in school, set a wake-up time, breakfast time, and a time to start and end their day,” Gutierrez said.

Ogletree also advised families can support social-emotional growth through check-ins with their children.Regardless of whether students are returning to campus, Ogletree said it is important for families to remain confident in their choices.

“Parents have been quarantined with their kids, and they’re worried, and they’re stressed, and their anxiety levels are up,” she said. “It’s reassuring parents no matter what decision you make, it was the right one.”

Adriana Rezal contributed to this report.