Two Pandemics: Learning Loss Hits North Texas Students as Coronavirus Cases Soar

Learning loss could get worse if kids return to the online classroom.
Learning loss could get worse if kids return to the online classroom. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
COVID-19 upended education in 2020, forcing many schools to pivot to online learning. Now, just weeks into the semester, the delta variant of the COVID virus has crept into the classroom and closed some campuses in its path.

As cases continue to climb statewide, Dallas ISD is doing its best to avoid a return to the virtual classroom.

“We’ve learned that there’s a big learning loss when kids are all virtual,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. “Kids need to socialize and be around other students. By masking and those who are eligible getting vaccinated, we have our best chance of all of our students being able to have the best school year possible.”

Jenkins said the delta variant is making up the overwhelming number of COVID cases. Last month, Dallas even ran out of pediatric ICU beds amid a surge in hospitalizations among children.

High case counts are also alarming parents across the state. In mid-August, Texas schools reported the highest number of student COVID-19 cases in one week than at any point last year, according to The Texas Tribune.

Dallas ISD has also seen more positive student cases this year, likely because more kids are back in the classroom, said Jennifer Finley, the district’s director of health services. Even though the infection rate is higher, she hasn’t seen a difference in the severity of illness.

Meanwhile, some schools are closing their doors because of an increase in cases. Earlier this week, CNN reported that Connally ISD in Waco has temporarily shuttered after two teachers died of COVID-19.

Dallas ISD is lucky, Finley said: It’s close to multiple hospitals, meaning it’s better equipped than some to stay open. And even though the county’s COVID-19 threat level remains at “red,” it doesn’t appear the district has plans to close.

“We’re really trying to make every effort that we can to not only keep our students and our staff in a healthy learning and work environment but also catch up for learning loss that they’ve encountered over the past 15 months,” Finley said.

"The environment they’re in ... is extremely difficult." – Professor Stephen Waddell

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With schools having to switch to virtual learning last year, some noticed their students had fallen behind. In November, for instance, Dallas ISD reported half of its students lost learning in math and 30% had lost learning in reading.

Dallas district officials will be contending with learning loss for years to come, said Stephen Waddell, an education professor at the University of North Texas. Most schools weren’t prepared for the move online, so they should begin investing in virtual learning to better handle future catastrophes.

Educators have never faced as tough a situation as they are right now, he said. Many believe their first responsibility is to keep kids safe, but their “core business” is ensuring that all children learn. Unfortunately, those two ideals are working against one another.

Schools are under enormous pressure, he said, adding that officials are acting in a way that’s “almost heroic.”

“It’s kind of like these people fighting the fires out in the mountains of the West Coast,” Waddell said. “The environment they’re in in trying to resolve these problems is extremely difficult.”

Rena Honea, president of Dallas’ Alliance-AFT teachers union, said she appreciates that DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa issued a districtwide mask mandate despite a governor’s order banning them. On top of masking measures, local officials have also done a good job of making vaccines available to students.

During a press conference last month, Hinojosa said Dallas ISD was looking into a virtual learning option even amid a lack of state funding. But this week, Texas lawmakers passed a bill that would fund virtual learning for two years and give districts the ability to create their own programs.

In the meantime, additional coronavirus variants may begin to crop up that are even more devastating, Honea said. And since children 11 and younger aren’t eligible for the vaccine, she wants to see elementary campuses go totally virtual — even though it’s not ideal for student learning.

Honea noted that just last week, two children died of COVID-19 at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth.

“It’s important that [students] have that face-to-face instruction,” she said, “but not at the loss of a life.”

As of Wednesday, Dallas ISD has reported 350 new COVID-19 cases this week, with a total of 1,240 for the 2021–2022 school year.
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter