AUSTIN (Nexstar) – When Texas lawmakers return to the State Capitol for the upcoming legislative session in January, there will be many competing priorities – and education advocates hope equity in learning isn’t lost in the shuffle.

As part of a nationwide project called “Pandemic PASS or FAIL,” Texas lawmakers are now taking a closer look at solutions our team has discovered groups implementing across the state to combat learning challenges for students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

We spoke with Rep. Gina Hinojosa, a Democrat from Austin, where she previously served as school board president. Her ties to education still run deep, as she currently represents a district that includes the state’s largest college – the University of Texas at Austin.

“We know kids are losing valuable skills and knowledge,” Hinojosa said, describing difficulties with remote learning. She spoke of the need for remediation for students. “We need to figure out how do we bring everyone back up to where they need to be.”

We also spoke with Rep. Gary VanDeaver, a Republican from New Boston, where he retired as superintendent before joining the legislature. Most recently, he sat on the chamber’s public education committee and the appropriations subcommittee focusing on school funding.

“My hope is that once we get past this, we won’t forget the challenges that this presented, because there could be something down the road,” VanDeaver said. “We had needs for connectivity, we had need for virtual learning before pandemic, so we’re just going to have to keep our eye on the ball.”

State of Texas Host Josh Hinkle speaks with State Reps. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, and Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, about solutions for education equity ahead of the 2021 legislative session.

In addition to their ideas for future school-related legislation and potential challenges for the session ahead, both House members shared their thoughts on the following Texas education innovations highlighted in our project surrounding the pandemic:

Rural Connectivity (Lockhart)

Crews install towers around Lockhart ISD’s coverage area to bring rural families high-speed internet (KXAN Photo)

Seventy percent of students in Lockhart are economically disadvantaged, and the income barrier to connectivity is nationwide.  Across the U.S., almost 17 million children lack the high-speed home internet access needed for online learning, according to an Alliance for Excellent Education analysis published in July 2020.

The same study found a persisting digital divide for students of color. Nearly one-third of Black and Hispanic students do not have high-speed home internet in the U.S., compared to one-fifth of white families. Seventy-six percent of families in Lockhart ISD are Hispanic.

And, many rural areas simply don’t have physical access to internet providers. Across the U.S., 36% of families in rural areas don’t have high-speed internet connectivity at home. In Lockhart, 60% of students live outside the city in rural areas.  

When Lockhart ISD officials learned many district families faced both financial and technological barriers to connectivity, they decided to make some creative cash and construction decisions to solve the problem.

The first step to getting Lockhart’s students connected was moving money and moving it fast.

When he realized that solving the district’s connectivity problem was going to be more complex than handing out a few hotspots, Superintendent Mark Estrada brought a budget amendment to the board in April asking to divert money from other projects into funding to create the district’s own free wireless internet service called LionLink.

The board approved the change and plans to build a network of seven towers to connect 500 families began immediately.

Tracking Students (Leander)

Leander ISD lost contact with several students when schools closed in the spring until taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to track them down (KXAN Photo)

There were some students Leander ISD simply couldn’t find when in-person instruction was suspended in March. Some lacked accurate contact information in their files at school. Others lived in a home without a phone or internet. Either way, educators had no idea if these missing students were still learning, and, more urgently, if some students were getting the free meals and social support they relied on at school.

In Leander ISD alone, educators were unable to get in touch with almost 1,600 students when in-person instruction was suspended in the spring. That’s enough students to fill two elementary schools.

The problem wasn’t limited to Leander ISD. Educators all over Texas were worried about missing students. Tens of thousands of students were defined as “non-contactable” by the Texas Education Agency in the spring.

Finding these students required a creative, all-hands-on-deck approach.

Relying on connections built long before the pandemic began proved to be the key to reconnecting with missing students at Leander’s Reed Elementary, too. Enter Carolyn Slavin, a bilingual librarian who built a trusted relationship with families over the past school year.

Slavin works closely with English language learners, who make up about 7% of students in LISD. Slavin and others went door-to-door there to track down students and find out how they could help families transition to virtual learning. They also had parents fill out note cards showing how many children lived in the home to make sure no child was left behind. 

In-home Child Care (Austin)

Austin child care provider Loretta Johnson wears a mask, checks temperatures and greets her students with hand sanitizer before they walk into her home (KXAN photo)

Early childhood education experts are interested in what’s happening at home-based child care operations in Texas. Some anticipate more parents moving towards this type of care for their children during the pandemic. 

Before COVID-19, Texas had 4,751 licensed and registered home-based sites. According to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, data showed that the number has gone down during COVID-19. As of mid-August, there were 4,065 licensed and registered child care homes open in the state.

But COVID-19 is changing the landscape now. Experts say families are looking for safe and affordable care and home-based providers are filling the gap. 

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.