AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dr. Stephanie Hawley, Austin Independent School District’s Chief Equity Officer, told the Board of Trustees that vulnerable, young learners are thriving with in-person schooling, explaining the district’s efforts for equity are “growing exponentially” despite the pandemic.

Hawley specifically praised the commitment of AISD staff and their decision to return to school, saying it has allowed students to forge new relationships with teachers, support staff, teaching assistants, librarians and counselors.

“This is taking our equity work to a new level,” Hawley said. “Some of those learners are getting one-on-one attention; they’re getting personalized learning.”

Jennifer Saenz, the Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives and Continuous Improvement for the E3 Alliance, an organization that studies education trends and data, says it is still far too early for officials to actually measure the academic success and failures from learning during a pandemic.

She says most of the success Hawley is alluding to is likely socially and emotionally based.

“[The students] feel like there is some sort of normalcy around it. It is more of a routine,” Saenz said. “But every student is different. Every student has different characteristics and social skills.”

Even still, the most recent data shared actually shows a decrease in academic success within the AISD’s student body.

Within the first six weeks of school, the number of failing students has nearly doubled compared to this time last year. AISD reports 11,698 students have failing grades, compared to 6,863 students at this time in 2019. The district says this represents 15% of the student population, compared to 9% in 2019.

The district told KXAN this is the first time both teachers and students have had letter grades in remote learning, which has contributed to the sizable increase.

As a district, Austin ISD supports grading practices that first focus on students’ social and emotional development and then their academic development. We believe that skills in teaching and learning build over time, and practice is invaluable. Our current circumstances are forcing us to look at our practices differently. As a result of this consistent monitoring made possible by the virtual learning setting, we now have a better sense of knowing if and when we need to adjust our learning practices.

Austin Independent School District

Parents are weighing in; some say their kids are benefitting from the smaller class sizes. Many students and families have opted to continue learning virtually, which has helped teachers carve out time to answer questions during asynchronous periods, when instruction is not directly taught to students.

Shelia Kieser, whose two children have returned to their elementary and high school campuses, says some of her son’s core classes only have five to six kids at a time. Although he is still working from behind a computer screen on campus, he’s now willing to ask questions, when he might’ve kept quiet before.

“There is definitely more availability during that asynchronous time for his teachers to take interest in him,” Kieser said. “

Kieser believes as the next phase of students come to campus on Nov. 2, the level of interaction will not decrease. Instead, she says teachers will have less virtual students to instruct, thereby providing more opportunities to interact with the in-person student population.

“When everybody is back in class and things are more normal, I think the kids will get more attention, because teachers will have less on their plate,” Kieser said.

Despite the positive reviews from the Chief Equity Officer, some families believe virtual learning is the best option.

Harper Kelly, a middle schooler with several diagnosed disabilities, will not return to her special education instruction on campus. Since the second grade, she has had daily one-on-one instruction with a teacher, a teaching assistant and a case manager.

Despite the extra help she might receive by being at school, she says she prefers to stay home. She is no longer dealing with peer anxiety and social distractions, which has historically held her back.

“The social pressure is gone. Not being in the classroom, she is comfortable at home. I can’t imagine sending her back to face-to-face instruction now,” Kelly’s mom, Leah Kelly, said. “She completes all of her work. She is engaged in her classes. Her case manager and the special education team has done an amazing job of supporting her remotely and we are seeing the benefits of it.”

Like these parents have alluded to, Saenz says every student will learn differently. She suggests families take time to uncover what feels right and to share that with their teachers, principals and district administrators. That way, the district can solidify plans moving forward in the best interest of all.

“You need to use your voice. Not just with what is not working, but also highlight what is working for your student,” Saenz said. “It’s those things that we will learn from and understand how to implement, scale and sustain.”

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.