And in the San Antonio Independent School District, Superintendent Pedro Martinez has for weeks sent out every available member of his staff, from social workers to central office personnel, to chat with the roughly 20 percent of families who indicated they’d like to remain virtual next school year. San Antonio will offer remote learning in the 2020-2021 school year — unlike some states and districts, which are ditching that option entirely — but Martinez is hoping he can convince most families to forgo it.
The all-out effort, which has stretched into evenings and weekends, is exhausting.
“My teachers are tired, there’s just no question about it,” Martinez said. He asked his staff to rest for the second half of June, so they could recuperate before the start of summer school in mid-July. Martinez views summer programming, targeted to students who have struggled most, as one of his best remaining chances to reel in reluctant families.
School districts nationwide have promised they will offer five days a week of in-person learning next year, representing a long-awaited return to normalcy. They’ve spent months blocking out unconventional classroom spaces and developing detailed guidelines so students and teachers can reenter school buildings safely in the fall at full, pre-pandemic capacities.
Many districts also brought back large portions of their student bodies over the course of the semester. Nationally, the percentage of fourth-graders and eighth-graders learning online-only had fallen to about 25 percent by April, down from a high of roughly 50 percent in January, federal data show.
But resistance to in-person learning is hard to eradicate, school officials say, especially in low-income households and among families of color, who have been disproportionately devastated by the pandemic. For some, the death of a parent or sudden unemployment forced students to take jobs they can neither give up nor balance with a regular school schedule. In other households, parents fear for immunocompromised children or family members. And there is general, continuing fear of the virus, as vaccines remain unavailable for very young children.
“In previous decades, the doors open and you expect students to show up,” said Alberto M. Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “This is the opposite.”
The stakes, school leaders and education advocates say, could not be higher. It’s clear the pandemic slowed academic progress across the board and widened equity gaps in education. In-person learning is seen by most as the best way to start making up for some of these discrepancies.
Moreover, another divide is starting to emerge: As grades come out for this semester, many school districts are noticing that remote learners lagged behind their in-person peers.
In Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, West Springfield Elementary Principal Kelly Sheers said she is certain “we can provide the best learning in person” — and she has set a goal of returning 100 percent of her 565 students to physical classrooms next fall.
That’s why, when she learned some families were feeling hesitant, she started phoning parents.
Sheers also spent a day driving through leafy neighborhoods to visit the homes of dozens of her roughly 150 remaining remote learners. In every case, the parents had already selected in-person instruction for the fall — but she wanted to make extra-sure of their intentions.
At home after home, Sheers gave out brightly colored sunglasses. She praised child after child for their hard work during a difficult year, saying she was proud of them. And she ended every visit with the same message.
“We’re excited to see you back in person next year,” she said. “Five days!”
Building 'relationships and trust'
Tiffany Anderson’s strategy to get as many of her roughly 13,200 students back into classrooms as she could, over the past year, followed what she calls the “wraparound” approach. The superintendent for Topeka Public Schools Unified District No. 501 asked all her principals to establish direct contact with every single family they serve. She mandated that two unexplained absences in a row trigger a home visit, including for remote learners.
And she sent employees out to community hubs — grocery stores, laundromats, “wherever families go to get their needs served” — to explain the district’s fall plans and argue for the advantages of in-person instruction.
Now, she is merging this effort with the push for vaccination.
“We have a mobile vaccination clinic, and we take it to the parking lot, and while we’re there we talk to everyone about the return to school,” Anderson said. “Without relationships and trust, you can’t do anything.”
Her strategy appears to be working. As of January, she had returned 70 percent of her families. Over the course of the past semester, she returned 20 percent more, equivalent to about 3,000 students. Anderson is hoping for a 98 or 99 percent return rate this August — although she will offer virtual options for any family that chooses it.
In Connecticut’s East Hartford Public Schools, Superintendent Nathan Quesnel is taking a different approach. He sent an email in May to parents and students announcing that his district of 7,000 would not maintain a remote option for school year 2021-2022.
“We wanted to get that message out as early and as quickly as possible,” he said. “We are trying to be clear that students in East Hartford are going to be back in the fall. Period.”
School staffers have also been conducting home visits, to check on attendance or just check up more generally. And, in the waning days of the spring semester, the school system is emphasizing the perks that come with in-person learning.
For example, as was the case this year, only in-person learners will be allowed to compete on sports teams. Quesnel shied away from calling this an “incentive, because then on the flip side it would be a punishment,” but acknowledged “it’s certainly a benefit” of brick-and-mortar schooling.
In early June, East Hartford invited all eighth-graders to an in-person middle school graduation ceremony — and made sure the remote learners showed up, too. Quesnel, who attended one of the celebrations, said he noticed widespread joy as the virtual students saw their peers for the first time in more than a year, and connected with teachers they knew only as talking boxes.
“Those are little, small things you can do to make a community feel welcomed back,” he said.
Meanwhile in Florida’s Miami-Dade schools, the state’s biggest district, about 50 percent of 350,000 students returned for in-person learning this year. In a bid to reach the virtual half, superintendent Carvalho assigned every single school employee 30 households to contact.
Staffers were told to phone the families first, then show up for a home visit. Sometimes that meant leaning on community organizations to hunt down new addresses, given families moved during the pandemic.
Once Miami-Dade employees find the families, they bring the conversation around to the fall, “We discuss the progress the student was making or not making, and make a case for the student’s return,” Carvalho said.
Early data suggests the vast majority of parents will opt for in-person learning next fall, the superintendent said. He himself took on 30 families, and has managed to convince 23 of them to come back.
But a half-dozen are holding out. Carvalho still calls and texts the parents and has visited some of their homes.
“I will keep going as long as it takes,” he said. “It’s not done until they’ve gained a comfort level with the fall.”
Promises, hopes for the in-person future
To many in education, the idea that in-person learning is superior to online schooling is taken as obvious — although little research was done on the subject at the K-12 level before the pandemic.
But Lakisha Young questions this orthodoxy. Young, who heads an Oakland-based nonprofit group that works to improve educational opportunities for families of color, thinks the conversation about the fall is centered too much on whether families will return in person. In some cases, she said, the tactics employed by school officials to convince parents and students even resemble bullying.
Instead, school districts should be exploring new and better ways to educate families, she said — including in an online format. She pointed to the model developed by her nonprofit, the Oakland REACH. Called the “Hub,” it is a parent-led initiative that offers families a wide range of free services, from after-school care to academic support to technology training and entrepreneurship classes for parents. Hub students’ reading scores went up dramatically during the pandemic, she said. Although the Hub started off independent from the school system, Oakland Public Schools has now partnered with the Oakland REACH to make it part of the district’s regular programming.
Young said some families of color may not want to return because they feel more in control of learning that happens at home, and distrust the quality of education available through public schools. She pointed to America’s history of racism and discrimination in schooling, and the fact that Black and Hispanic students have lagged behind White peers in academic achievement for decades.
“I don’t subscribe to this idea that the way families and kids are going to get ahead is by going back in person,” she said, “because we know what they’re going back to . . . Black and Brown students have been in a perpetual learning loss for the past 50 years.”
Martinez, in San Antonio, said he understands this history and this reluctance. His district is 97 percent students of color, he noted, and 90 percent also live below the poverty line.
But ultimately, he is following the data. His district is finishing the school year with about 50 percent of its students learning online. Officials are working to complete a full analysis, Martinez said, but early data that he said he could not reveal yet show a drop in performance for the virtual students as compared to those who went back to classrooms.
“It is very concerning to me how low these results are,” he said. As soon as the analysis is done, Martinez and his staff plan to start showing families reluctant to come back just how poorly their child has fared online compared to face-to-face learners.
When Principal Kelly Sheers drove to virtual learners’ homes in early June, she offered only praise for their academic efforts. She handed Timothy Brown, 7, and Samuel Brown, 10, a note reading: “You shined so bright this year.” She had never met either boy in person, because the Browns moved to the area during the pandemic.
She asked the brothers what they learned online. Timothy said he learned how to spell, and proved it by sounding out “F-l-o-r-i-d-a.” Samuel said he’d become adept at fixing computer problems. Sheers laughed, and told the fourth-grader she’d be asking him for tech help next year.
“You two have never been in our building, so we’ll make sure once school gets closer to starting that we’ll have an opportunity for you to come in and learn where your classroom is, see your teacher, figure out where everything is, before school starts,” Sheers said. “Because I know that can be a little overwhelming, right?”
Timothy giggled, a bit nervously.
“We’ll be like, ‘Who’s that?’” he said. “We’re so curious about things!”