Five Early Lessons the Pandemic Has Taught Us about Texas Schools
By Margaret Spellings
Texas has learned a lot about itself — and its education system — through the coronavirus crisis.
We’ve learned how critical education is to parents’ work schedules, to civic engagement, to children’s security and wellbeing, and to sports and culture. Texas’ schools and universities have proven to be foundational to economic and community life — our society will not feel truly reopened until students return to school.
In the meantime, educators and administrators have scrambled to ensure students can learn without being in school. Many districts have been creative in connecting students with high-speed internet connections and hardware. Teachers have worked to provide remote instruction and structure. Kitchen staff and other workers have provided food and other needs for out-of-school students. And parents have stepped in to support day-to-day teaching, filling a critical gap at a critical time.
In all of these ways, Texas has responded to the coronavirus with determination. Now, Texans everywhere — from the Governor’s Mansion to family dinner tables — are beginning to chart a course to the future. We must learn from the pandemic’s lessons and work to address the weaknesses it has exposed.
Our schools are a good place to start.
First, the coronavirus has revealed stark gaps in how thousands of children in urban and rural settings access help, resources, dependable meals, safe places, consistent schedules, counseling, and special education attention. Our state should redouble its efforts to address these gaps, and the pandemic should be viewed as our opportunity to do so — not an excuse to ignore them.
Secondly, access to broadband internet — connections strong enough to support video classes from home — has often determined whether students could continue learning through the pandemic. Millions of Texans live in houses without high-speed internet connections, meaning those households that do not have access to, or cannot afford, the infrastructure students need right now to learn online.
Third, there is no longer any doubt about the powerful impact of teachers. Sadly, they are in a baptism by fire, as the pandemic fundamentally alters their roles and responsibilities. Thousands of teachers have stepped up to the challenge, working to reach their students. It’s important that Texas build on efforts to ensure our teachers are as effective as possible with additional tools.
Fourth, in restarting the education system, Texas must think about how to best use the school calendar and consider adding school days next year to help students make up for lost time and learning. I encourage Texas officials to build in more school days next year – 180 days probably will not be enough for most students, particularly as experts predict the coronavirus’ return next fall.
Finally, this crisis has reaffirmed the importance of understanding how students are doing through assessments that evaluate learning. This year, for the first time in over a generation, students will not be given a state-administered test measuring what they learned during the school year. Texans already knew that achievement gaps were wide — but this year, it’s impossible to know how wide, where students are, or where improvements are needed. When schools finally reopen their doors, I urge Texas officials to administer diagnostic tests to determine learning loss and which students need further instruction and help catching up.
We cannot let this crisis undermine progress and learning – the stakes are too high. Steps taken over the coming months have the potential to propel our next generation forward; doing nothing will cause too many students to fall behind.
Texans must seize this moment to support our schools, hold ourselves accountable, and do what’s right for the future of Texas.
Margaret Spellings served as Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush and is executive director of Texas 2036, a non-profit group focused on long-term, data-driven planning through Texas’ bicentennial year.