When the new school year begins in August, Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner expects all of his district’s students likely will be back to in-person instruction.
“We have not seen COVID numbers increasing in our schools,” the district’s top administrator said Monday. “In fact, we didn’t have to close one school as a result of COVID due to an outbreak in in-person instruction. We’re proud to be following those protocols, and we think we can continue with 100% in-person instruction as we move to August.”
Scribner made that comment during an event hosted by Read Fort Worth, a coalition of community organizations focused on improving literacy rates, that also featured retiring Mayor Betsy Price. The two leaders discussed what they thought was the best way forward for education following the pandemic.
‘Our schools are safe’
The best place for students, Scribner said, is back in the classroom.
Students in Fort Worth ISD have been in virtual classrooms since this time last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic set into everyday life. Currently, about 60% of the district’s 84,000 students are physically in a classroom, according to Fort Worth ISD.
“We’ve learned a lot through the pandemic, and we can use technology as a supplement to in-person instruction, but our data clearly does bear that out: The students who are participating in person achieve at higher rates,” the superintendent said.
Education experts have told the Fort Worth Report virtual instruction is not a good replacement for many lessons, especially for young students still learning basic literacy skills.
Price wants students back in face-to-face instruction — a sentiment many teachers share with the mayor and tell her about as she goes around the city for meetings.
“They want to be able to look in the child’s face and say, ‘Johnny is struggling with this,’ or, ‘Susie is struggling with this,’” the mayor said. “That’s incredibly frustrating for them.”
Still, many parents in Fort Worth ISD are hesitant to send their children back to school. A majority of students in the district are Latino or Black — demographic groups who local doctors say are still ambivalent to getting vaccinated.
Vaccine providers need to meet people where they are and have people whom they trust, such as faith leaders, tell residents to get inoculated, Price said. She echoed Scibner’s point about COVID-19 not spreading as effectively in schools. Last week, the district reported 41 exposures and positive cases.
“Our schools are safe. Our teachers are vaccinated. The large majority of kids 12 and older will be vaccinated shortly,” Price said. “But we need the full community — not just the parents — to say, ‘Get them back in school.’”
Fort Worth ISD announced Monday it would have on-campus vaccine clinics for students older than 12 starting Wednesday, according to a news release. It partnered with Perrone Pharmacy to offer Pfizer vaccines to students and their parents at schools across the district. The pharmacy is providing 180 doses to each campus.
Another big boost to overcoming that hesitancy will come from Fort Worth ISD lifting its mask requirement, the mayor said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week announced a major shift in its masking guidance: Fully vaccinated people do not have to wear facial coverings.
Getting students back in the classroom is one thing. Getting them caught up with their learning is a more complicated issue. TEA estimates show students have lost at least five months of learning since the start of the pandemic.
Fort Worth ISD plans to use summer school to help students get up to speed with their learning. The district has tapped Read Fort Worth to lead groups of community organizations to operate the program. The program starts June 23 and ends July 22 and features in-person and virtual options.
Federal dollars allocated in the recent coronavirus stimulus packages will cover the cost of the program. Fort Worth ISD expects to receive $261.6 million.
“It’s going to be for everyone,” Scribner said, describing it as an all-day program with mornings focused on literacy and math and, in the afternoon, education enrichment focused on science, technology and career skills. “We’re excited about using this pandemic as an opportunity to not go back to the way we did things before, but actually improve.”
The city of Fort Worth plans to help students, too. The city plans to offer summer camps to supplement the district’s summer school program, Price said.
The district’s summer school program is not remediation, Scribner said. That kind of work has not resulted in the right outcomes, he said.
Recovering from learning loss cannot wait, the Fort Worth ISD leader said.
“The stigma of summer school has always been for those students who have fallen behind or have not passed a class,” the superintendent said. “Given the pandemic and that this is a year of recovery, we want to start right now. … We cannot allow this public health crisis to turn into an education crisis.”