Spotlight on Texas: Navigating Back to School in a Coronavirus Hotspot

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On Tuesday, teachers in Texas awoke from a long Labor Day weekend and rose for educational battle. They showed up in classrooms armed with PPE or they cracked open their laptops at home and readied their online classroom conferencing software, all to ensure that students going through a similar routine could continue learning in a time of coronavirus. The stress is immense for all of them.

“Some teachers are afraid because of the uncertainty of contracting the COVID-19 virus and taking it home to their spouses or other family members,” says Jose Rodriguez Director of Parent and Community Engagement at UnidosUS.

His role requires that he liaise regularly between educators, parents, and Affiliates participating in the parent engagement program Padres Comprometidos. Through this work, he says he has learned that while districts usually provide some PPE, teachers have been creating Amazon wish lists of items they think their classrooms need for added protection.

“One requested Clear Teacher Desk Shield for their desk and for the work tables where the students will receive small group instruction,” he adds.

And while parents appreciate those extra efforts, they too fear sending their children back to school for face-to-face instruction could lead to infections they might bring home to the family. Then again, how are they to keep their kids engaged in online learning if they lack adequate technology or good, old-fashioned adult supervision?

“These are especially daunting concerns for many Latino families, a demographic especially impacted by the virus because many are low income, lack access to adequate health care, have one more jobs as essential workers, or live with large or extended families,” notes Rodriguez.

According to the 2010 census, about 38% of Texans identify as Latino. The Texas Education Agency reports that they make up 52% or 2.9 million of the students enrolled in the state’s public school system.That agency also estimates that about 20% of the state’s public school population are English learners (ELs), and 18% of those children are Spanish-dominant. Additionally, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 59% of all Texas public school students are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program, an indication that most Texas public school students are low-income. Given this outlook, UnidosUS Texas Policy and Advocacy Strategist Manuel Grajeda says local, state, and federal government are exacerbating serious health and educational problems for Texas families by not providing more PPE, technology, technical support, and expansion of internet services, especially in working class communities along the U.S.-Mexico Border. But his greatest concern is the lack of cohesion for contact tracing within those schools.

“It took until this week for the state to provide schools districts with a system to report COVID-19, and yet, if students, teachers, or support staff get infected there still isn’t a set process for what schools should do in response,” warns Grajeda. “There’s a big lack of leadership at the state level.”

In the meantime, districts are being forced to pick up the slack in a piecemeal fashion, notes Blanca Nelly Saldaña, Director of Family and Community Engagement, Strategic Partnerships and Collaborations at the UnidosUS Affiliate Tejano Center for Community Concerns.

For example, Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, opted for fully online learning but to ensure it worked, officials partnered with 10 churches to provide spaces where students could be dropped off to use their computers and internet. “Those spaces are limited,” adds Saldaña.

Her own organization runs a small public charter network called the Raul Yzaguirre Schools for Success, and it’s trying something similar by opening its library and computer lab for students who can’t connect at home.

“All these efforts certainly help, but they don’t easily take the place of face-to-face instruction, especially for students who are learning English or have disabilities,” says Rodriguez.

He says it’s much more challenging to offer the accommodations usually provided in the classroom for these groups. ELs need opportunities for extended discussion or peer collaboration. For students with disabilities, the accommodations outlined in the Individualized Education Plan may require large print materials and frequent breaks. The virtual setting can also be challenging to children with learning disabilities who may need things like special lighting or acoustics, or a longer response time.

Plus, says Grajeda, there some parts of the state are essentially off the grid.

“In areas like the Rio Grande Valley—with largely Latino cities and the colonias—there are many communities where even in the 21st century, basic services like clean water and electricity don’t exist, much less broadband infrastructure.”

So how can Texas residents get these students up to the speed they’ll need to stay focused and keep on learning as scientists and public health professionals wage war on the pandemic itself?

Saldaña notes that in places where there is internet access, elected officials and school districts have been hosting virtual meetings and town halls, as well as sending out surveys to seek public input.

And this being one of the most embattled elections in American history, Grajeda wants to remind eligible voters to make sure they’re reaching those polls. In fact, he sent a comprehensive civic engagement wish list, one he hopes can lead to better PPE and so much more.

  • Register to vote before October 3, and then vote during the early voting period from October 13 to 30. The general election is November 3, but you can avoid the long lines by voting early.
  • Vote for candidates that will properly represent and lift up your community and support public education for all students.
  • Fill out the census, regardless of your immigration status. This information cannot be shared with agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Department of Homeland Security, but getting an accurate demographic count directly impacts funding for public health, education, and nutrition programs.
  • Hold elected officials accountable by advocating for increased funding to help students with technology and culturally appropriate programs, especially for vulnerable populations such as those who live in poverty, are ELs, are students of color, and those who are disabled or in special education programs. Call your elected officials to make sure they’re doing what they can for students!


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