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updated 3:04 AM, Nov 27, 2020 America/Chicago

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Polk County students returning to campus

James WhiteJames White

By Brian Besch
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A large portion of Polk County students returned to school Tuesday, as Livingston ISD welcomed back over 500 who were receiving instruction online.

Among several reasons for a return, Livingston ISD Superintendent Dr. Brent Hawkins cited an increased workload on staff and an “astonishing” failure rate from those taking courses over the Internet.

Big Sandy ISD made the same decision to return all students to campus a few weeks ago, one of the earliest in Texas to do so. Leggett ISD plans to have all back Oct. 27.

Former educator and current State Rep. James White (R-Woodville) said he can appreciate why school districts are making the decision to return to an in-class structure.

“School boards and superintendents are making decisions based on the data in their community,” White said. “They are discussing that with the communities, in consultation with the local health departments.”

White said has seen other school districts across the state attempting to bring students back to the classroom. He said data points like infection rates, hospitalization rates and if students are turning in work while learning from home have been determining factors. In many parts of Texas, students taking classes online have not turned in assignments.

“You measure if students have the academic exposure and socialization that they need in order to compete, and one day help us defeat another virus outbreak,” White said. “I think that is what we are doing.

“On this side of my district, going over toward Evadale and Jasper, we did have some Covid-related fatalities. It was folks that happened to have worked in the school. I’m not saying they got it at the school. I think you have to put it all together and I like the idea of it being decided from family to family, household to household and community to community.”

A former teacher at Houston ISD, Fort Bend ISD, Livingston ISD and Woodville ISD, White said he also worries that students are not keeping up with academic responsibilities. There are reports that many may not be making the progress necessary to advance.

“There is a thought that we could have at least 300,000 kids throughout the state that we don’t know where they are. (State Rep.) Dan Huberty had a Zoom virtual meeting and he talked about this. We don’t know where these kids are at; they are not signing on or logging on or doing any of that. One of my colleagues — and I think it is the Fort Worth area — there may be at least 30% of the kids that were unaccounted for.”

According to the White, there are some districts where instructors are walking blocks in neighborhoods and knocking on doors, just as a truancy officer would, to find students.

If students are nowhere to be found, forms such as free or reduced lunch are not turned in.

“It could be hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars lost.”

White has been an advocate for student attendance. Texas decriminalized truancy with legislation he authored. House Bill 2398 made truancy a civil offense, ending the practice of jailing students for skipping school.

Signing the legislation in 2015, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said criminalizing unauthorized absences at school unnecessarily jeopardized the futures of students. 

The bill kept pupils in the classroom by maintaining the criminal offense for adults who contribute to truancy. It prioritized family involvement and school-based intervention over criminal punishment of the youth. The law requires schools to implement preventive measures as the first response to truancy.

In conversations with superintendents, White said one of the things that seems to be of concern is how thin staffs have been stretched.

“With my smaller districts, which is most of them, what I am getting from the school teachers and from the administrators is they don’t believe that they are going to be able to keep this tempo up, where they have that teacher in there practically doing two sets of lessons a day. There’s not enough hours in the day. They may get worn out and the idea is ‘Will we be able to keep these folks in the profession?’

“I think we are seeing a renewed value in the student-teacher relationship, whether that is inside or outside the schoolhouse. Internet accessibility has a role, it has a purpose, but I think we are coming to a conclusion that (online learning) is not something that people always dreamed about. There is more to school than just showing up. There is a community aspect.”

Distance learning has been successful in assisting some districts to close the technology gap. 

School districts in Polk County have been able to secure Chromebooks and hot spots for students to learn at home. The tools for Internet access have come at a significantly reduced price or often free through government programs. They will continue to benefit in the event of another outbreak or assist with homework for on-campus learners.

“I think a lot of people are discovering the value of the Internet in our lives. It is a utility; it is no longer a luxury. Applying for a job, paying bills — it is the market. Getting these devices in these households (is important), not only for the kids when they come home, but so families can start taking advantage of that utility.”