Math teacher Aaron Tomhave found it fairly easy to continue connecting with his students when his district outside of Houston shifted online in March. He’s a tech whiz, and he already had a good relationship with them. 

But when the Splendora school district returned to in-person instruction in September, Tomhave noticed subtle differences with his new students: When he rolls up on his mechanic’s stool and asks them about their day and their schoolwork, he gets an authentic and immediate response. He knows that would have been harder over email. His students are grasping concepts more readily in person, too.

“There is a big difference between accountability face to face and accountability online,” said Tomhave, who’s been teaching for about 13 years. 

Math teacher Aaron Tomhave leads an in-person class at Splendora High School in Texas on Nov. 12, 2020.

That in-person connection, many educators and parents say, is often the lynchpin for academic success. It’s why, despite the pandemic, a growing number of districts are requiring students struggling online to attend class in person, if that’s an option.

But an explosion of new COVID-19 infections challenges that effort. Already, the nation’s new COVID-19 spike is poised to send hundreds of thousands of students who were in school at least part-time back to 100% remote learning.

New York City — where some 300,000 public school students are receiving some in-person instruction — is quickly approaching the community spread threshold that would trigger another shutdown. Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday told parents to prepare for school buildings to close as early as Monday.

On Thursday, county officials in Indianapolis ordered all public and private schools to close and return to online learning by Nov. 30 for safety reasons, a move that affects around 200,000 students.

And a number of urban districts that have operated fully online since the start of the year, such as San Diego, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Anchorage and several big, suburban districts outside of Washington, D.C., are further delaying plans for in-class learning because of rising infections.

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‘This is hell’: Parents and kids hate online learning. Why hasn’t it gotten better?Before the most recent surge, districts were facing pressure to get more children back into classrooms. Mounting evidence shows schools that carefully reopened with safety protocols have not had major outbreaks. Most of the virus spread, experts have said, appears to be happening in the community, not schools.

A growing number of health experts have recommended opening more elementary schools because young children appear less prone to transmit the virus than experts had feared, and because younger students have a hard time learning online independently. Currently, about 37% of students nationwide are attending schools that are entirely remote, according to Burbio, a company that’s aggregating school calendars.

“The ethics of this is hard,” said Neeraj Sood, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California who researches infectious diseases. “Closing schools has costs on children, but there may also be health benefits” for people staying at home, Sood said in a recent webinar.

Big schools were just reopening: Then COVID cases surged.

Some schools want struggling students back in class

When millions of students returned to school with remote learning as their only option this fall, large swaths of of them went missing — especially in lower-income neighborhoods. Others logged on but did not participate regularly in live lessons, or did not submit assignments, teachers said. The issues have continued for thousands as the holidays approach.

Some districts with in-person learning started trying to nudge, mandate or cajole those students languishing online back to classrooms.

The focus on kids falling behind during the pandemic is “100% about the students who are remote, because we can’t see them and get to them,” said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s commissioner of education. Schwinn says her department backs any district that wants to call students back to in-person learning for the sake of their academic progress.

Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn introduces herself to a first grade student at Sterchi Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sept. 28.

In Texas, recalling students lagging in their remote studies has received a mixed response. Is it better to prioritize children’s academics, or the choices — and health — of their families?

In Splendora, about a quarter of the Texas district’s 4,200 students chose to continue learning online after classrooms reopened. But many of those students were failing their classes or not attending at all, said Superintendent Jeffrey Burke. 

Initially, Texas’ state education department said districts could not discontinue remote instruction only for struggling students. So Splendora asked parents to apply if they wanted their child to continue online learning. Then the schools took those applications — about 600 in all — and had staff review children’s grades and absences with parents, to convince them to return to school.

Last week, Texas updated its state guidance to allow more districts to recall struggling students to in-person classes. Now, if a student has an average grade of 70% or below or has three or more unexcused absences in a grading period, Texas districts can call them back to in-person learning.

“While parents still have the final say — as they should — giving schools more latitude to better support kids who are struggling academically should help more of our students stay on target,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

Still in online school? 9 questions to help parents vet their school’s remote program

But as COVID-19 cases rise, the Texas Medical Association, Texas Pediatric Society and the Texas State Teachers Association have stressed the importance of virtual learning amid the pandemic.

School policies should not put community members at risk, punish families who have been advised that virtual learning is in their best interest, or undermine public health efforts to slow the spread of the virus, the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Pediatric Society wrote in a recent joint letter this week to state school leaders.

“Completely discontinuing virtual learning at this time fails all three tests,” the letter said.

A top district official in Austin — a liberal city where many parents have chosen remote learning — has said he has no plans to force children back to class, even though he acknowledges some students are struggling academically.

“We see failure rates going up across the county, but now is not the time to force anybody into a school environment, especially when they’re doing what they think is best to keep their children safe,” said Anthony Mays, chief of schools. “We never want families to feel like we’re forcing them back into the school environment prematurely.”

‘Historic academic regression’: Why remote schooling is so hard

Two-thirds were failing in one Florida district 

Florida’s school districts were among some of the first to reopen for in-person instruction this fall. Many families still chose remote learning — and many have since changed their minds and returned their children to school.

In the Volusia County school district that surrounds Daytona Beach, more than 12,000 students have transitioned from remote learning back to in-person learning since the school year began, with nearly 3,000 of those students making the jump in the last two weeks. 

By the end of September, midterm progress report showed that 2 out of 3 middle and high school students learning remotely had at least one D or F grade — prompting an effort from the school district to entice those students to return to in-person learning. The situation underscored district leaders’ fears that remote learning wasn’t working, although at that time almost the same number of in-person high school students were failing classes and so were more than half of in-person middle school students.

Now, 73% of the district’s students are signed up for in-person learning, compared with 60% when the year started. At least a portion were tempted back by the district’s efforts to reach out to students who were failing.

Staff members at Port Orange Elementary School greet students and check their temperatures at the front door on Aug. 31, the first day of school in Volusia County.

As the end of the first semester approaches, Florida school districts are waiting to hear from state leaders whether they’ll continue to receive the same amount of money for each remote student as they do for in-person students. If the state doesn’t extend that allowance for the rest of the year, it’s likely Volusia will stop offering remote learning altogether, sending thousands more students back to the classroom. Or those students may enroll in other options, like the state’s massive online school. 

For Rene Schmidt, whose daughter is in 10th grade this year, those possibilities pose a concern. 

“We chose (remote learning) for a reason, and those reasons haven’t changed,” she said. “If we’re still worrying about the kids’ health … where’s the option for me other than sending her back to brick and mortar?”

Contributing: Cassidy Alexander of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Melissa Taboada of the Austin-American Statesman.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID cases may cause school closings, despite kids failing online

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