School leaders and educational advocates warned during an ABC13 town hall Thursday night that lawmakers only have a small window of time to take action, as thousands of students have disengaged from virtual learning or have been lost in the shuffle altogether.
"Eighty percent of the children in Houston today are either African American or Latino," said Andy Canales, executive director of Latinos for Education Greater Houston. "Our collective future rests on their success."
Before COVID-19 turned our schools upside down, Black and Hispanic students faced a number of disparities at no fault of their own. According to researchers at McKinsey & Company, these students on average were two to three years of learning behind white students of the same age in 2015.
Those same researchers suggest by June, Black and Hispanic students will fall even further behind academically by 12-16 months, compared to five to nine months behind for white students.
The differences between online learning and in-person instruction isn't helping matters.
"We see the impacts on our kids," said Addie Heyliger, president of Fort Bend ISD's school board. "We know that based on academic performance that they really need to come back face-to-face."
Daniel Potter, associate director of the Houston Education Research Consortium, said nearly 70% of Black students and 60% of Hispanic students opted in to virtual learning in 11 Houston-area districts this year. Only 40% of white students are taking classes online.
The dual learning environments have brought varied results, but Potter said for those learning virtually, the digital divide and some unique circumstances have led to more failing grades and students struggling with engagement.
"It's kind of grim," said Tiffany Guillory, principal of HISD's Jack Yates High School. "We need our students back on campus to make sure they're focused and make sure they are focused on school work, to make sure they offer tutorials, extracurricular activities."
Also impacting academic achievement this year is the number of new transient or homeless students, many forced to move as COVID-19 took a financial toll on their families.
Potter said 17,000 evictions were filed in the Houston area during the pandemic, the third largest total in the entire country.
"We're losing students because they have to go live with cousins or grandparents," Guillory said. "Yates is their safe place. And when I say that, we feed them three meals a day, they get tutorials, they have one-on-one sessions on campus, small groups, and my students need that."
Getting these students back on campus will require money and the will of Austin to see these students succeed, Potter said.
"We start with just talking vaccines for our teachers, for our school staff, for our principals, right now," Potter said. "Why is it that we asked our teachers to go back into the classroom in the fall, kind of sort of without any real PPE available to them? They've been providing their own masks and providing their own hand sanitizer, their own wipes. They've been taking this burden themselves."
But money and masks alone won't solve the issue of students falling behind.
While some Texas school districts wrestle with the idea of passing as many students as possible, Heyliger said educators must demand interventions that won't shortchange their Black and Hispanic students in the long run.
"This is not a time for us to cut corners," Heyliger said. "COVID doesn't mean that, 'Hey, we're going to, you know, put a Band-Aid on this and push people through it, and we wish them the best.' We as educators need to really buckle down and... really reimagine how we are teaching and how we support our kids."
Canales also suggested the legislature should move on access to universal Pre-K across Texas, and extend the school year from 180 days to 210 days to help students get ahead in the summer months.
The alternative, said Literacy Now executive director Jacque Daughtry, is the prospect of thousands of Texas students being left in an impossible situation.
"Forty-one percent of our students are coming to Kindergarten without the skills they need to learn to read," Daughtry said. "There are studies upon studies that show that if your child is not a proficient reader by the end of third grade, they are four times more likely not to graduate from high school."
Daughtry said there is a big correlation between illiteracy and incarceration rates, with 85% of youth in our juvenile justice programs being functionally illiterate and 70% of Texas' adult prison population having around a fourth grade reading level.
"I just hope and pray that we don't waste this opportunity, because normal wasn't that good for low income students and students of color," Daughtry said.
The virtual town hall will stream exclusively on ABC13.com and ABC13's apps for your smartphone, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, and Android TV devices. Just search "ABC13 Houston."
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