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What One District Did to Prevent Students From Failing

LUBBOCK, Texas — Madison Hermosillo started her sophomore year at Roosevelt High School alone in her room, bewildered and quickly falling behind.

Set among cotton fields and oil derricks outside Lubbock, Texas, her school was open for in-person classes. But coronavirus cases were rampant, and her mother decided to keep her home.

Madison, who is 16, muddled through remote assignments in geometry, chemistry and world geography. Soon, she was failing in every class but gym.

“My mom would tell me to go do it, and I would just go in my room and watch TikTok on my phone,” she said.

She was not the only one. By the end of the first grading period in September, 77 percent of the district’s remote high school students were failing at least one class. Those who opted to attend in person, by contrast, were mostly passing.

Similarly, about 30 percent of the youngest students, particularly in first and second grades, were not meeting grade-level expectations on a reading assessment administered at the start of the school year — roughly double the number from previous years, Delynn Wheeler, the elementary school principal, said.

To district officials, that was evidence that remote education last spring had set students back. And those who remained remote at the start of the fall semester struggled to catch up.

So the district took a drastic step: It ended its remote instructional option and required all of its 1,010 students — from prekindergarten to the 12th grade — to return to the classroom.

“This works for us in our little school district,” said Dallas Grimes, the superintendent. “It’s not going to work everywhere.”

The Roosevelt Independent School District resembles many others across Texas: small and rural, with a heavily Hispanic student population, including many living in poverty. Like others, the district struggled to provide remote instruction, despite creating mobile hot spots for students without internet and checking in frequently with those falling behind.

The results of mandating in-person instruction have been mixed. Dozens of teachers, staff and students have been infected, and many more have had to quarantine at home because of exposure. The absences have disrupted everything from classroom instruction to building maintenance.

But teachers and administrators said the best thing for their students was to be in school.

“When those kids were walking through that door, it was good,” said Theresa Hoffman, assistant principal in the district’s elementary school, recalling her emotion at watching students return. “The schools that didn’t do that — I just can’t imagine.”

The entire Roosevelt Independent School District sits on one campus, along a straight, flat country road. A fleet of yellow buses arrives each morning carrying the vast majority of students, many wearing the maroon school colors of the Eagles.

The students are 57 percent Latino and 37 percent white, with a small number of Black students and fewer of other races. More than three quarters qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Roosevelt was among the first districts in Texas to end remote learning, notifying parents on Sept. 22. All students had to return the following Monday. (A majority of Texas students attend school in person.)

Of about 140 students who were studying remotely, 15 withdrew from school because their families were worried about the health risks of in-person classes.

Seven others had already left the school district, located in a conservative and frequently Covid-skeptic part of West Texas, for the opposite reason: Their parents objected to a state mandate that all children 10 or older wear masks, Mr. Grimes said.

So far, the decision to bring everyone back into the classroom has improved performance, Mr. Grimes said. By the winter break, only 9 percent of high school students were failing at least one class.

But as performance has improved, the pandemic has intruded.

A large number of the district’s 170 teachers, administrators and other staff have tested positive for the coronavirus (52) or had to quarantine because of exposure (27), from the start of the school year through the beginning of January.

Absences have forced teachers to combine classes, serve lunch and even take out the garbage. Mr. Grimes, the superintendent, has had to drive a bus when the regular drivers tested positive or had to quarantine because of an exposure.

“We’re still recovering from Covid now,” said Tim Crane, the high school principal, who along with his wife, a special-education teacher, tested positive in early November. “My wife and I do everything we can, and yet we got it.”

As more schools across the country opened their doors in the fall, evidence has suggested that in-person learning has not necessarily led to widespread coronavirus transmission within schools — though the emergence of a new, possibly more infectious coronavirus variant has raised new concerns about reopening schools.

In Roosevelt, there is no regular coronavirus testing, but the district has imposed basic safety measures, including requiring masks, except when eating, and staggering arrivals and dismissals.

The greater risk has been infections outside of school. The surrounding community of Lubbock County had among the worst outbreaks in Texas during the fall, fueled by a mix of returning college revelers and local residents fed up with pandemic precautions.

No cases have been linked to contact at school, Mr. Grimes said. But contact tracing has been incomplete. Mr. Crane said neither he nor his wife heard from Lubbock County contact tracers after they fell ill.

And the community has not been immune from the pandemic’s toll: A bus driver, who tested positive at the end of a weeklong Thanksgiving break, died a few days later.

Cafeteria tables with seats for a dozen students are limited to three. Numbered lunch tables fill a school gym. Some students eat on the bleachers, at spots marked by blue tape.

The school does not have the space to maintain six-foot spacing in classrooms. And collaborative work, or a desire to gossip, draws students close.

“Guys, you’re going to have to sit down,” Kylie Martinez, an English teacher, told three students who were standing together in her freshman English class one morning last fall.

In the dim light of her second-floor classroom, students read quietly and answered questions on their laptops — a much larger part of life in the school this past year, and a way to keep students learning if they have to quarantine at home.

“As a mom, I was worried,” said Ms. Martinez, who has two young children attending the district’s elementary school. “I was concerned about them getting sick and us getting quarantined.”

So far, that hasn’t happened. But the pandemic has directly affected about one in three students: As of the second week in January, 53 had tested positive since the beginning of the school year, and another 282 have had to quarantine for two weeks because of an exposure.

“I’m in a big geometry class, and half of that class is in quarantine,” Madison Hermosillo, the sophomore who struggled with remote learning, said just before Thanksgiving break.

Madison has adjusted to the new routines of being back in school, from wearing a mask to sitting in an assigned lunch seat. After a few weeks back in school, her grades began to improve.

By the start of January, she was passing all her classes.

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