Students returned to in-person learning Jan. 19 at Dr. Joseph E. Torres Elementary School in Northeast El Paso. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Independent School District)
By Eddie Rodriguez

Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought our nation to a halt, Texas was on the verge of making transformative changes to our public education system. State lawmakers had just passed school funding reform, House Bill 3, which would finally address decades of underfunding our public schools. This outcomes and equity based funding system was long overdue. 

Eddie Rodriguez

But before implementation of HB3 could take off, the pandemic forced our schools to shift to virtual learning, leaving thousands of students in limbo and oftentimes disconnected from their schools altogether. 

Now, one year into the pandemic, it is time to address the academic damage of COVID-19. It’s not just a moral imperative, but an economic one since the pandemic learning loss will snowball into our workforce, meaning we could experience a shortage of workers with the skills and training needed to fill in-demand jobs. 

Getting our education system back on track requires that we move forward with fully implementing the intent of HB3.

The impact of COVID on El Paso’s education system cannot be overstated. The digital divide, Zoom fatigue, and difficulties in keeping kids engaged are just some of the factors that have impeded student progress in the past year. These challenges fall hardest on students of color and students from economically disadvantaged families, many of whom found much-needed support in the classroom, and haven’t received that during virtual learning. 

The result? Across our three largest school districts, enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year has dropped by 7,000. 

But the effects and damage of COVID go far beyond just a drop in school enrollment.

The Texas Education Agency reported that results on last year’s STAAR test suggest a learning loss for students of nearly 6 months from March 2020 to early fall. A nationwide study also found that students of color experienced between six to 14 months of lost learning. 

Given the demographics of El Paso, where 90 percent of our students are Hispanic, we are expecting a full year of education loss due to the pandemic. 

El Paso’s Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development strongly supported HB3 before the pandemic and we know this law provides the focus and funding mechanisms needed to bring Texas’ public school system back from the brink. 

We urge legislators to maintain the structure and funding levels of HB3, including the Teacher Incentive Allotment; Early Education Allotment; Bilingual Education Allotment; support for adding additional days to the school year; and support for summer courses. Collectively, all of these elements provide funding for the interventions that are needed to address the COVID-slide. 

We also urge legislators not to base next year’s funding formulas on current school year enrollment figures. Unfortunately, many students disengaged from education when schools went online. Re-engaging these students should be a top priority, and one that will strain existing resources. If we want to help students regain the level of educational standing they lost over the past year, it is necessary that schools be funded at pre-pandemic levels. 

Finally, we urge our state leaders to maximize the COVID relief funding that Congress has approved and get that money into the hands of school districts so they can start addressing learning loss and get kids back on track. The $12 billion that was allocated from the federal government to Texas PK-12 schools is intended to help schools plan for reopening, to offer summer school, and create a plan for addressing learning loss. Now is the perfect time for school districts to start seeing that money.

The COVID pandemic has imposed almost a year of academic deprivation on Texas’s public education system and on our young people. If we want to reverse this damage, we must close the academic attainment gap as quickly as possible. And it starts with equitable and outcomes-focused funding.

Eddie Rodriguez is the executive director of the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development.

Cover photo: Students returned to in-person learning Jan. 19 at Dr. Joseph E. Torres Elementary School in Northeast El Paso. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Independent School District)