Texas students slammed again as storm scrambles already chaotic school year

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Frozen jackets sit on a bench at an elementary school in San Marcos on Feb. 17, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

When icy temperatures knocked out Neshia Inmon’s electricity for more than two days, she sent her 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son to a family member’s house while she stayed home.

Inmon, who lives in East Texas, encouraged her children, learning through the Texas Virtual School Network this year, to keep up with their schoolwork when cell service or internet access permitted. Throughout the chaos and instability of the past year, Inmon has done as much as possible to prioritize her children’s education.

She is calm when discussing the details of all the unexpected challenges the pandemic has thrown at her: Over the last year, she was fired from one retail job, had to quit another to help her kids with online school, received eviction notices almost every month, and isn’t sure whether her appeal for unemployment benefits will go through. As she waits for the weather to clear up, she is rationing a limited supply of food and making sure her children get to eat.

“I can’t even imagine about the people who are not as strong who got kids. That’s when it hurts the most: When you have somebody who you have to take care of,” she said.

The winter storm delivered another blow for parents, teachers and students already struggling to get through this academic year, as COVID-19 has destabilized the lives of many Texans. Already students were failing multiple classes learning virtually, feeling increasingly anxious and depressed, and worrying about their loved ones. Now, some families still don't have power or water and some schools, given the damage to facilities, are unsure when they are going to be able to take students back in person.

Districts across the state are surveying their buildings and finding broken pipes, soaked classrooms and other major property damage, as rising temperatures thaw pipes. The Texas Education Agency said school districts still dealing with electricity outages and other issues next week can apply for waivers to provide completely virtual instruction or, in some cases, close completely.

The destruction may indefinitely delay in-person instruction — and more crucially may prevent schools from serving as immediate lifelines for their most vulnerable families. As temperatures plummeted over the last week, many schools could not serve as warming centers for their communities as they have done during past disasters. Some also could not distribute free meals to students, with staff members unable to leave their homes and refrigerators full of spoiled food.

More than 130 buildings in Houston Independent School District lost power and water, including the nutrition services building that houses food for students, said Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan in a CNN interview Friday morning. She promised to give families more information soon about bringing students and teachers back into buildings next week. Dallas ISD canceled meal distribution Friday, in part because the weather prevented them from receiving food orders from vendors.

In Seguin ISD, outside of San Antonio, a crew of custodians and maintenance workers will survey buildings Saturday and decide whether students and teachers can return Monday, said Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez.

Even before the winter storm, Gutierrez was one of many chastising state leaders for moving forward with the state standardized tests this spring, arguing it was a waste of time and resources during a stressful year. The storm will sap even more days of instruction.

“We have a good number of families who have moved in together because of job loss, food insecurity and things like that. That just compounds those problems that already exist,” Gutierrez said. “You have families on the verge of evictions and then you lose a week of … pay so you can’t have food.”

In some cases, parents are still relying on their teachers and schools to connect them to needed resources. After Chimene Mbiele and her husband had been without power and water for four days, their son’s Hart Elementary School teacher texted to see how they were doing.

“‘It’s so cold,’” Mbiele said she texted back. Soon after, the Austin ISD teacher sent her the address of the Reilly Elementary School shelter and organized transportation to get the family there Thursday.

Mbiele wasn’t sure when school would start again, but without internet access in the shelter or electricity at home, she wasn’t sure if her three children could attend, even virtually.

Many teachers are struggling right now alongside the students they teach. Alison Rodriguez, a fourth-grade English teacher in Killeen ISD, is living out of a duffel bag at a friend’s house and waiting for the electricity at her house to return. She has briefly logged into the online learning platform and noted that a small group of students have checked their assignments.

Last weekend, with snow on the horizon, the district’s principals asked them to remove all scheduled required assignments and instead post optional ones. With a standardized writing test coming up this spring, Rodriguez posted a few nonfiction reading exercises and hoped for the best. Then, her power went out Monday morning and stayed out for days.

Rodriguez is more worried about her students’ health and safety, since 88% of West Ward Elementary’s students are low-income and they already struggled to access food.

“We’re all just kind of worried about our kiddos’ wellbeing and then worried about what it will be like when we get back,” she said.