A classroom in Cactus Elementary School in Cactus on Jan. 28, 2020. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Celina Cabral used to do filing and payroll at her sister's concession business 40 minutes away from her Houston apartment. But when the 200,000-student Houston Independent School District announced it would close schools at least until mid-April in response to the spread of the new coronavirus, she was forced to stay at home with her four children, a spotty internet connection and a dwindling supply of food.
Cabral's oldest daughter lives with Cabral's mother in the same building, but neither will agree to watch her fourth-grade son, who is autistic and has anger issues that make him difficult to manage. "The money is not coming in right now. It's hurting us financially really bad right now," she said.
As more school districts plan to keep their doors closed long-term, with COVID-19 cases and panicked responses ramping up quickly, families are cobbling together childcare solutions and finagling other forms of financial support. Many don't know where to leave their young children for a full work day, much less how they will be educated weeks down the line.
School districts are offering free meals at sites within their boundaries, and preparing to switch to online education to ensure students keep learning. But, in a majority Hispanic public school system like Texas' where almost 61% of students are economically disadvantaged, some will likely slip through the cracks. And in many cases, the news is moving too fast for families to keep track.
Cabral doesn't have a driver's license and didn't know that Houston ISD was distributing free meals at a handful of sites. The grocery stores she has made it to have been nearly cleared out, with people stockpiling food and supplies out of fear. "I guess I was procrastinating and I wasn't thinking it was that big of a deal," she said. "Now I know it is and it's a little bit too late."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that closing schools for a few days to four weeks doesn't help prevent the spread of diseases like COVID-19. Longer closures better protect older and immunocompromised staff, but can throw life into chaos for families who rely on key services provided in schools, and lower income households like Cabral's are hit the hardest.
Unlike other states, Texas is letting local school districts decide when and how long schools should close, though it has waived requirements for students to take state standardized tests. As of Monday morning, around 730 school districts educating millions of students had extended spring break, and the number is continuing to rise. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school superintendents to anticipate closing through the end of the school year and teaching students remotely, especially in areas where the virus has spread.
The decision to close has been fraught for school leaders, who understand they are balancing health concerns for staff and families with students' access to food and medical care. Many neighboring districts have closed at the same time to help prevent confusion, especially in urban and suburban areas.
"Student safety is really important to us. We all know right now we're in a time of uncertainty, but we want to bring certainty, and we want to work with our families, our students and our staff members in the best way we know how so they know that we're going to take care of them," Austin ISD Superintendent Paul Cruz said before announcing that the district would suspend classes through April 3.
Math teacher Cassandra Lozano knows that her students at Harlandale ISD's Kingsborough Middle School, where 88% are economically disadvantaged, might not have consistent access to the internet --or even a phone -- to do assignments online. The San Antonio teacher is glad the STAAR exam has been canceled, but worries about the students who will fall further and further behind their peers without in-person education.
"I wouldn't want kids to be suffering, like they're not getting fed and they're not having the resources to continue their learning," Lozano said. "They're going to be losing out on quite a bit." She would rather send math worksheets and other paper packets home with students than require them to complete assignments online.
Ever since Plano ISD extended its spring break due to coronavirus concerns, Valorie Marquez spends her days at home alone texting her friends and her boyfriend, in walking distance from her mother's day job as a housekeeper at a nursing and extended care facility.
The 12-year-old used to volunteer at the Dallas-area nursing facility, until it restricted visitors for the safety of the residents. She doesn't have a computer at home, and didn't take a Chromebook home from her middle school before last week's spring break. When her school begins online instruction, as encouraged by the state, she will have to complete assignments on her smartphone.
Plano ISD is surveying parents to assess students' ability to access technology outside of school. "We fully recognize the irony of using an online survey to gather this information," the website reads, while promising to also gather information "offline."
The district is offering meals at multiple sites for curbside pickup, but Angel Walker works two jobs and doesn't have a car. When she needed to stock the pantry last Friday, she took off early from her day job and called in sick from her night shift at the local Popeye's. She and Valorie hopped in an Uber to the local Wal-mart, only to find little on the shelves. They grabbed cans of tuna and chicken, crackers, ramen and some hot dogs.
One of the challenges of finding childcare during the current crisis: grandparents, often reliable caregivers, are "in hiding," extremely vulnerable to getting sick or even dying if they contract COVID-19. Kayla Willeford doesn't feel comfortable leaving her 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son at home alone while McKinney ISD is closed.
Working in a company IT department, she can stay home on a temporary basis, but she worries about school being closed for weeks or even months. Her mother- and father-in-law live in town, but they are older and don't want to risk getting sick by babysitting. Even her brother-in-law has a congenital heart condition that rules him out as long-term caregiver. "This is real and we need to get a game plan," Willeford said.
Among the most vulnerable students during the long period of lost instruction are those with special needs and learning disabilities, who already struggle to learn with the accommodations and services they get in the classroom. The federal government published a fact-sheet Monday educating schools on how to make remote learning accessible for students with disabilities, as required by law.
For 14-year-old Genevieve Gilmore, an eighth-grade student in Prosper ISD, in the Dallas area, the prospect of taking classes online for months without having a teacher to explain the assignments in more depth is "stressful."
She receives special education accommodations under federal law due to her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: usually after a teacher is finished explaining a lesson to the whole class, she will put Genevieve aside to go through it again one-on-one. Genevieve also gets tutored before and after school.
“I always have to have somebody with me. I always ask questions,” she said. “It’s going to be hard because I can’t talk to my teacher, who is the only person I feel comfortable talking to.”