While public schools await the release of federal stimulus funds meant to combat student learning loss, a problem the winter storm earlier this month threatened to deepen a bit more, one San Antonio school district already has help to bridge the gap between high achievers and struggling learners.

Vanessa Cosgrove said her three daughters would likely be struggling to succeed in school during the coronavirus pandemic, and now in the aftermath of a historic winter storm, without help from San Antonio Youth.

“I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have SA Youth in my life or in my daughters’ lives,” she said. “They are like my right hand.”

The nonprofit works with South San Antonio Independent School District students to help them reach academic success by providing individualized tutoring. That work has come to the forefront since COVID-19 disrupted school almost a year ago, and last week’s winter storm that kept students at home for a week compounded the learning loss problem for San Antonio school districts.

Students will not have to make up those missed days if their school boards approve inclement weather waivers provided by the Texas Education Agency. The agency allowed school districts to close for up to five days without having to make up those days, and several San Antonio area school districts have plans to submit waivers to the state in the coming weeks. But that lost learning time is just another setback for students already enduring a pandemic.

Not every school district has a partner like SA Youth to help students close learning gaps that resulted from the pandemic and winter storm. School districts also face potentially costly repairs to their facilities in the wake of the winter storm and depleted funds from purchasing devices and personal protective equipment for students and staff. The $5.5 billion the state received from the federal government in the second round of COVID-19 relief funds could help schools close those learning gaps and pay for any emergency repairs districts need to make, said Bob Popinski, director of policy at the advocacy nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas.

“The whole state was put in a tough situation last week, but schools are the backbone,” he said. “They were able to provide food and shelter for a lot of folks. Hopefully, we will remember that public schools are the cornerstones of our communities as we move forward.”

The state has not released those federal funds to school districts yet, although Congress passed the legislation in December. Popinski said state leaders are going to run out of time to provide that funding to districts this school year for it to have any meaningful impact on remediating student learning loss. School districts need time to plan how to use that money and figure out how to provide students with additional services.

“It takes time to ramp up and try to figure out what teachers are available for extra work, for tutoring. It takes time to ramp up those programs for after school,” Popinski said. “It would be helpful for planning, and it’s helpful just to know that they have that funding available, too, as a backstop for what happened last week.”

In Northside ISD, night tutoring is available in almost every subject for students who need a little extra help, whether they’re virtual or in-person students. With additional funding, the school district could increase that tutoring and assist more students, said Jerry Woods, assistant superintendent of high school instruction.

“Part of that teacher intervention is getting that student help not only within that seven-and-a-half hours (in school) but beyond that,” he said. “That money will help us pay for more resources that we’re going to need because more and more students are going to need to be connected to those (after-hour) resources.”

Northside also could begin developing summer programs that would provide intensive learning opportunities for students and start planning where to place more teachers to help students next school year, said Deonna Dean, assistant superintendent for middle school instruction.

Currently, Northside curriculum specialists are evaluating how much course content students missed last week and adjusting learning schedules to prioritize key concepts that need to be covered by the end of the school year, Dean said.

“It’s probably our best strategy to help teachers navigate the loss of time when the learning standards remain constant,” she said.

Cosgrove is not worried about her three daughters falling behind in South San Antonio ISD because she knows she can contact SA Youth if she has concerns about her daughters struggling with a certain concept or homework assignment. Her two oldest daughters started participating in the program in the first grade, and now Emmalee, 10, is in fifth grade and Acelynn, 8, is in second grade, both at Armstrong Elementary. Her youngest daughter is in kindergarten at the same school. All are learning remotely.

SA Youth works with 475 elementary and middle school students in South San Antonio ISD, said Karin Wolfe, data and out-of-school time manager. The district has about 8,000 students, 90% of whom are economically disadvantaged. The nonprofit tailors its programs to the areas in which students are struggling, which has mostly been reading and math. Staff works with students one-on-one to provide tutoring that has almost disappeared since the onset of the pandemic.

“We are not only a support system for the families we serve. We are the support system to South San and those individual schools, especially with the COVID slide,” Wolfe said, referring to faltering grades amid COVID-19 restrictions. “South San has already stated that they can’t do this alone, that they need the support of community members like us, and we have this amazing opportunity to be there and fill in the time when students are released from school. We’re able to be there and provide extra tutoring and extra help finding the resources that they need.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.