If Houston’s District Schools Keep Taking the Day Off, Students Will Never Catch Up

There have been some good reasons to close schools over the past year—in the early days of the pandemic, for example, or during major weather events like the recent winter storm here in Texas. 

Last week, though, there was no such reason, but the Houston Independent School District (HISD) was closed again anyway. We have reached a point where if HISD feels like closing schools, the district will just go ahead and do it. As a mom of two girls, one in second grade and one in fifth, I was surprised to read a district update saying there would be no school at all on Monday and Tuesday. 

On Wednesday, my daughters were to log on, independently, to an educational website for one hourand that would be their full school day. The email from “HISD Academics” said students have the option to “[c]omplete at least one lesson in Imagine Learning (30 min) and one in Imagine Math (30 min). Total: 1 hour.” 

Since when is 30 minutes on a reading website and 30 minutes on a math website, without a teacher, considered school? Furthermore, why were schools even closed last week in the first place? A district email on Friday, February 19, said that “due to the continued impact that our community has endured” there would be no in-person instruction until today, March 1.

To be sure, the winter storm was very difficult—like so many people, I had no electricity, heat, or water. A pipe burst in my kitchen, causing significant damage. But as is the case for everyone in our community, I’m having to make it work, fitting my personal responsibilities in with my job and the other things in my life. I have some help, and a supportive employer. Not everyone is so fortunate. 

How could the district ask families to cope with another week of school closures on top of everything else? Campuses should be closed when there is an imminent threat to people’s health and safety. That is not what was going on last week. There is no damage to my daughters’ school; the boil water order was lifted two weekends ago; power is back on, and the weather is beautiful. 

Many other Houston-area districts held classes in person last week. And even those that were only virtual still had staff teach remotely. HISD seems to be the only district that came up with a new definition of a school day—not eight hours, just one, and with no teachers. 

Rather than provide in-person instruction or a real virtual learning program, the district seemed to be more concerned about ensuring families understood that logging on for the one hour would be used for attendance—that point was emphasized in multiple emails. I can only assume this is because HISD wants to get “credit” for the day when it reports attendance to the state. 

Does the Texas Education Agency—our state’s department of education—think this is acceptable? 

We are nearly a year into the pandemic, and it has been hard, especially for kids. HISD should be doubling down to help children, given all they have missed. Instead, the district is closing schools casually, thinking we parents will just accept more missed days without any concern for how they affect our kids. 

None of the letters I have received from the district over the past week have acknowledged the toll of these continued disruptions.

We lost last spring. And in the fall, HISD didn’t open classrooms until mid-October. This school year, students have also had to quarantine—rightly so—when there have been suspected COVID exposures. Families understand and accept that protocol because it is part of keeping our community safe. But it is still a hardship. 

Now, two more weeks of interruption.

Even worse, I have seen nothing meaningful from HISD about how the district is planning to help children recover—even though The Houston Chronicle reported in November that “42 percent of students failed one or more classes in the first marking period, up from about 11 percent in a typical year.” District holidays and teacher work days have continued as usual, and HISD opted not to adopt a longer school year. 

The academic fallout for kids is bad enough—but when school is not in session, many children also struggle with loneliness, hunger and abuse at home. Kids have never needed their schools more. My oldest daughter has an insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm for learning. She took it upon herself to write to our superintendent, Dr. Grenita Lathan, asking her to consider how hard it is for kids to be away from their friends and teachers. 

We all understand there have been legitimate reasons for schools to close. But closures should always be a last resort—only when circumstances truly warrant. I hope HISD will start caring more about serving students than the numbers it reports to the state, and will get serious about helping kids make up for lost time. They will never catch up if HISD keeps taking the day off.

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