While the omicron variant could finally be peaking locally, the crisis in public education triggered by the pandemic, as well as the politicization of curriculum, is profound and not even close to subsiding.
It will be with us for years, concerned and somewhat overwhelmed educators say. Learning loss, as much as two or three academic years for some students, and the exodus of professionals from public schools point to long-term consequences.
Teachers, school principals and superintendents are struggling to keep local schools fully functioning as the pandemic approaches the two-year mark, and as educators increasingly say political pressure is preventing them from doing their best work.
Education leaders I’ve been speaking with say nearly two years of the pandemic and an increasingly divisive political environment are leading to teacher and administrator burnout, causing people to leave the profession.
The growing challenge of teacher retention was chronicled in this 2021 report by the University of Houston and the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation. An article published Friday in the Texas Tribune documented nine Dallas-Fort Worth area public school superintendents who have resigned recently.
A December study published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that four out of 10 school principals say they likely will leave their jobs sometime in the next three years.
“We are worried all of this could negatively impact our search for a new superintendent,” longtime San Antonio Independent School District Trustee Ed Garza said in a recent conversation. “People don’t realize the after-effects of the pandemic on students and staff will take years to overcome.”
The Bexar County Public School District COVID-19 Report for Jan. 17-23, even with several of the 14 districts failing to report complete data, shows 4,912 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 that week. That number does not include those already out because they or a family member have contracted the virus, or students kept at home because parents fear they will contract COVID-19 in the classroom.
High rates of absenteeism have administrators concerned that the state’s funding formula based on attendance will cause Bexar County school districts to lose millions of dollars in badly needed funds at the very time they are struggling to retain talent and stabilize classroom and support operations. The Texas Education Agency suspended the practice for the 2020-2021 school year but has not extended the relief for the current school year.
Kevin Brown, the former Alamo Heights Independent School District superintendent who now serves as the executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, wrote in a November 2021 blog post.
“In the best of times, being a superintendent is barely sustainable, though the intrinsic rewards are remarkable. Since March 2020, ‘sustainable’ is not a word I would use to describe your job,” Brown wrote. “I have felt enormous empathy and appreciation for those in public schools who have endured COVID-19, multiple hurricanes, Snowmageddon, and the divisions that have percolated down from national and state politics into local communities.
“Texas educators and administrators have been nothing short of heroic during this challenging time, going far beyond the normal expectations of their jobs as they put their own lives on the line to help our children and communities get through a historically challenging time.”
The annual statewide poll on attitudes toward Texas public schools conducted by the Charles Butt Foundation found that parents of public school students rate school performance high through the pandemic, while adults without children in the schools gave lower ratings.
“The impact of COVID on our schools and everyone who works in education will be felt for years to come,” said Lindsay Whorton, president of the Holdsworth Center in Austin, the public education leadership center founded in 2017 by H-E-B chairman and CEO Charles Butt, a major supporter of public schools. “The crisis is distressing, and it’s illuminating the importance of investment in people. You can’t sit on the sidelines and expect educators to do their work, to accomplish their mission without support.”
Vaccination rates among school-aged children still trail those of the general adult population. According to city figures reported on Jan. 31, only 17.5% of children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated; 58% for children 12-15; and 62% for children ages 12-18.
A key step for parents with school-aged children to help public schools normalize operations is to get their children fully vaccinated as soon as possible.
Many students facing extended learning loss experiences will require extensive support to graduate on time and be college ready. It’s a challenge educators say they will face for years to come.
It’s an argument for year-round learning, adequately funded by the Texas legislature, and for state leaders to address a crisis they are saying little about publicly.
Disclosure: The Charles Butt Foundation and H-E-B are supporters of the San Antonio Report.