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Could this school year actually be more challenging than the last?

As schools head into a new year - a year with many unknowns - school leaders are most concerned about the learning gap and mental health of some students.

DALLAS — Talk to many parents, students, teachers and administrators, and they’ll tell you the last year school was perhaps the most challenging they’ve ever experienced. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

Days away from the start of school in 2021, they are all once again preparing for another year like no other.

DISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa told the hosts of Y'all-itics that "there are a lot of moving parts, no doubt."

"What's clear is that we have to be in person," Hinojosa said. 'What's not clear is how we're going to be able to execute on that. And so, it is more complex than where we were a year ago, despite the fact that progress has been made on the virus.”

Hinojosa said everyone in his district had to learn on the fly last year and make adjustments almost daily. As he heads into a new school year - a year with many unknowns - he said he’s most concerned about the learning gap and mental health of some students who haven’t set foot on campus in quite a while.

“How do we make sure that we catch the students up? And how do we deal with the mental health of some of these kids that have been away for so long, 18 months," he asked. "So, I'm worried about those two conflating things coming together, because it's hard to learn when you're worried about something."

The President of the Texas PTA absolutely agreed with anyone who said they’re more nervous heading into this school year than they were the last. 

Suzi Kennon said there’s been virtually no communication from the Texas Education Agency, or the TEA, the organization responsible for public education in Texas. She said parents know this.

“I think they're worried about what things are going to look like," Kennon said. "When we were receiving emails from school districts, you know, almost weekly last summer, saying, 'here's some updates, here's some things we're considering. We're not exactly sure, but this is what it may look like.' At least we had some information. But it feels like this summer we just don't have any of that."

Dallas ISD said it plans to use some of the federal COVID relief funds to help its students catch up. That includes hiring some 1,800 tutors. But because that’s such a large number, Dr. Hinojosa said it will take the district three years to hire them all.  

In addition, the district has three different calendars to accommodate different groups of students and where they might be in their learning. The first day of school for group one is Aug. 2. DISD is also planning on an experimental hybrid campus, that would include three days of virtual learning and two days inside a brick-and-mortar. The district is still waiting on word whether the state will help fund that campus, but Hinojosa said the district will move ahead with the plan, regardless.

Other districts across the state also said they might experiment with some level of virtual learning. Austin ISD recently announced it would continue virtual learning for kindergarten through sixth grade this year, even though the state isn’t providing any funding for it.

All of those plans are possible answers to one of the most important and challenging questions facing school districts this year: what to do with kids and teachers who have to quarantine for 10 – 14 days.  

Hinojosa called this a “huge dilemma.”

“They're going to have to catch up at home when they're at home in the evenings, in the afternoons and getting support, just like if you were out sick with, you know for three days with the flu. But now, you gotta stay out a much longer. But there is not a virtual option," he said. "This is precisely why we wanted that bill to pass that didn't pass at the last minute. Then we could have had a solution for those kids that were ill and couldn't come to school. But right now, we’re just going to have to use a lot of muscle. And those kids will fall behind."

If teachers test positive for COVID, they obviously can’t be on campus either, so districts are preparing to hire many substitute teachers during the school year.

And the lack of a virtual backup has Suzi Kennon and other parents and teachers more worried about that situation this year than they were last year.

“A lot of kids were home alone, but they had to check in online with teachers. So, at least you knew if they were absent or not,” Kennon said. “This year, you know, sending them home for 10 days - even if you give them a bunch of work sheets - what are they learning?  It feels a lot more like last March than it does now. It's a big fear. I don't know how we work around that.”

Kennon said overall, there are no great options for policy solutions to all of the unanswered questions they have.  She said there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach.

“It falls to them (districts) and their school boards to figure out what their policies are going to be and what measures they're still going to use," she explained. "Are they still going to socially distance? Is it going to be three feet? Six feet? Are they going to have plexiglass? Of course masks are optional, but you know all of those other factors - they're still trying to figure out.  And parents are just anxious to know what that's going to look like."

So, instead of the start of a new school year, many feel as though it will be continuation of the unprecedented and challenging times districts have dealt with since March 2020. While COVID has dominated the discussion during that time, Dr. Hinojosa reminded us there have been other major events that only added to the complexity.

“The last 18 months have been just crazy, like nothing else," he said. "We had a tornado, which you guys reported on. We had a pandemic. And then we had a snowmageddon. And none of those things were on my calendar, and those were not in our strategic plan, and you have to deal with those things. But like I said, nobody wants a whiner.  We had to figure it out on the fly."

Dr. Hinojosa said the district is prepared to ask the state for several waivers during the school year as they continue to battle the pandemic. And Suzi Kennon also explains how there’s another level of anxiety for parents and students when it comes to wearing masks on campus. To hear more about both topics, be sure to listen to our latest episode of Y’all-itics.

To listen to this week's episode of Y'all-itics, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher Amazon Music