In the Big Bend region, public schools in Valentine, Fort Davis and now Alpine have all made the move to stop offering remote learning to students. In letters sent to parents and guardians, the districts cited high rates of absent students during online classes, which has local officials concerned students are falling behind.
By Carlos Morales
Throughout the Big Bend region, other districts—including Fort Davis Independent School District and, more recently, Alpine ISD—have also cut the option for students to attend class virtually. The option for students to attend classes from home began last spring after the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping through Texas. But remote learning has put a lot of stress on students, parents and educators.
Some educators in the tri-county area have reported increasing levels of absenteeism among students attending class online, but that wasn’t why Valentine ISD ended remote learning. Superintendent Debbie Engle said the strain virtual learning put on their small teaching staff was too great and the school district was left with few options.
“There are very few students that can and that do as well online as they do face to face,” said Superintendent Engle.
At times, the small, close-knit teaching staff in Valentine is considered the reason for the school’s impressive academic performance, but during the pandemic, the 10-person teaching staff’s workload nearly doubled. Teachers creating lesson plans for multiple subjects and grade levels for students enrolled in both in-person instruction and remote learning became too much, explained Engle.
“Kudos to my teachers, parents, everybody was working and doing a good job and doing their best,” said Engle. “But we were dropping balls because we had too much on our plate. We just couldn’t do it all. Something had to give.”
Shortly after Valentine ISD moved to eliminate remote learning, Fort Davis ISD followed. And as of today, Alpine public schools are the latest to join the effort to get students back into the classroom.
During an Oct. 21 school board meeting, Alpine school officials said the district’s 98 students enrolled in remote learning weren’t performing as well as students receiving in-person instruction.
According to reporting by the Alpine Avalanche, Middle school Principal Cody Patterson told the board he was also concerned about students’ social-emotional well being and said learning from home had other challenges.
“You have five kids. Someone in the background is doing dishes. The dog is running around. The middle school kid is maybe babysitting a younger sibling, so they are not fully engaged in the discussion,” said Patterson.
Across the state, district officials and parents are making similar claims about the difficulty of virtual learning, spurring calls to get students back into the classroom.
“If you’re not getting those students to school, even though it is virtual that you’re talking about, it’s a problem,” said Bill Tarleton, executive director of the Texas Rural Education Association. “It has to be addressed in some way or another, and about the only way they can do it is attempt to get those students in school face-to-face.”
The Texas Education Agency doesn’t require districts to offer remote instruction and says if parents or guardians do not want their children to return to the classroom, they can enroll in another district offering remote learning. Other options are limited: homeschool, or enroll in an online school.
In Valentine, Superintendent Engle said the district has lost four of its students who were enrolled in remote learning. Three moved to a school system still offering the option, while another enrolled in an online school.
In Marfa—where public schools will continue offering online learning— Marfa ISD Superintendent Oscar Aguero said he’s fielded a handful of phone calls from parents about transferring their students into the district’s online learning program, including one from McCamey, Texas—nearly 140 miles away from Marfa.
As of Friday, however, the district hasn’t received any formal applications to begin the transfer process.
The districts in the Big Bend that have eliminating virtual learning say they’ll provide the service again under certain situations, including for students diagnosed with the coronavirus, those needing to quarantine and when district campuses have to close.