Back to school at Houston ISD falls short of an 'A'

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Monday, September 14, 2020
Back to school at Houston ISD falls short of an 'A'
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Thousands of HISD students didn't log on during the first week of class.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Thousands of Houston Independent School District students still have not logged onto online classes, leaving the district at risk of losing nearly $300 million in funding if the enrollment doesn't improve when the official count is taken in early December.

HISD, the largest district in Texas and seventh largest in the U.S., started its first day of classes on Tuesday with its hosting site crashing as students across the district were unable to log on. That same day, 12,205 HISD students still did not have a device so they could learn from home.

As the district finishes its first week of classes Friday, teachers and parents say they're still concerned about how computer distribution, attendance and technology issues will impact students and the budget this year.

'B+' for attendance

On the first day of school, HISD said 140,102 students logged onto classes, but 68,000 students - or about 33 percent of the anticipated enrollment - did not log on. The number of absent students improved the next two days. By Thursday, the number of absent students dropped to 32,000.

Any student who doesn't log onto classes by Friday will be dropped from enrollment and will have to re-register for classes in order to attend, HISD Interim Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan said during a school board meeting on Thursday.

"Attendance and enrollment? I would give it about a B+," said Scott Parker, a seventh-grade science teacher at Navarro Middle School. "We do need to watch the numbers that dip because, of course, when those numbers are decreasing or declining that is less funds that we're getting from the government in order to keep running those schools."

The Texas Education Agency issued a waiver during the spring, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that allowed districts to not take attendance. This year, though, attendance will be important to maintain the same funding levels.

RELATED: Thousands of Texans stopped learning during the pandemic

The TEA told 13 Investigates for every student that does not show up to class, HISD could lose an estimated $9,200. If the district is still down 32,000 students when the official count is taken in early December, that could have an economic loss of $294.4 million in funding.

Houston Federation of Teachers president Zeph Capo said principals across the district are concerned about how a dip in enrollment could impact funding.

"Their budgets are going to potentially be impacted by not having the enrollment," Capo said. "That's going to really get defined in teachers being able to keep their positions."

Parker said about 90 to 95 percent of his students have been engaged in classes this week.

Still, he has had some students who have not logged on, and there are thousands of students districtwide who haven't either.

"I'm very concerned," Parker said. "Every child, regardless of socioeconomic status, their background, their culture, every child should have the same resources and the same accessibility to those resources and that's what equity is all about."

Computer distribution

Claudette Berry's 6-year-old granddaughter Tymirah was excited for the first day of school, but when it finally came, she still didn't have a device.

"She was a little disappointed because we didn't have her device yet," said Berry, who is helping her five grandchildren learn from home. "They called, I guess it was the next day ... and went and got it. That made her very happy. She loves looking at her teacher. She enjoys that."

On May 15, Lathan said the goal was to get one device for every single student in elementary, middle and high school. She echoed those statements again throughout the summer, saying during an Aug. 13 school board meeting, "Our goal is, of course, to meet this September target of trying to get a device in every child's hand because of the fact that that is a requirement as it relates to operating in a virtual environment or provide opportunity to go to a location that has a device."

But when school started on Tuesday, a 10-year-old fourth grader was turned away from her campus when she went to pick up a laptop. The district ended up finding one for her later that day. Still, on the first day of school, 12,205 students went without laptops and hotspots.

In the meantime, HISD set up virtual learning centers, where students can use a desktop in a socially distanced room. But, few students are showing up.

"There were parents that we contacted that said they were not sending their children to the learning centers. We are prepared to receive up to 18,000 students. We have 681, but we're ready," said Lathan said Thursday.

Berry said she told the district in July that Tymirah didn't have a device to learn from home and checked in again before school started to ask about the status, but never received one until after school started.

Last year, when the pandemic forced at-home learning, Tymirah was among 10,245 HISD students teachers lost contact with. Another 38,392 students were not engaged in the spring. Berry said getting Tymirah a device and engaged this school year was vital in making sure she doesn't fall behind.

"I think it has had a positive effect on her mental state with being in school because she could not do it last year," Berry said.

Technology a 'C'

Within hours of the first day of school, the parents and students were met with an error message and unable to log onto the online learning platform at HISD.

Parker said technology has been the most difficult part when adjusting to teaching classes online.

"The biggest hurdle for me really has been just reaching all the students," Parker said. "The setup that we're in right now makes it a little bit challenging for me to just have that really good relationship with those students."

He credits his campus' administration for making sure its students have the technology to participate in online classes but knows there may be more glitches in the future based on internet access.

"It's gotten better. The first day there were definitely a lot of crashes going on," Parker said. "I explained to my students too, a lot of that has to do with them being on the same platform simultaneously."

If she was grading the district's technology this week, Claudette Berry said she would give the district a "C."

"I've run into an issue with a teacher at the high school, who's not technology savvy," Berry said. "We got in late yesterday, I guess somebody finally figured it out. It's going to be a challenge. It really is."


Earlier this month, 13 Investigates reported that dozens of Houston-area campuses do not have a school nurse. During an Aug. 13 school board meeting, Lathan said every campus will have a school nurse this year, unless it's a shared property where one nurse will go between buildings.

RELATED: Dozens of Houston area campuses don't have a school nurse

At that time, there were 20 campuses with nursing vacancies. This month alone, an additional five nursing positions have been posted to the district's website and there are a total of 22 nursing vacancies, according to the district's website.

The district is slated to return to in-person instruction on Oct. 19. On Thursday, the HISD school board gave the go-ahead to look into, if necessary, extending remote learning by two weeks.

Parker said when it comes to returning to classes in person, safety is paramount.

"I'm very open to going back, but there needs to be some concrete safety measures in place," Parker said. "I can say this, the district is definitely working very hard to put those things into place."