Since Dallas ISD started virtual learning three weeks ago, Yesenia Espinoza has been fielding a handful of FaceTime video calls during each workday, squeezing them in while helping clients at a dentist’s office.

One of her sons, a third-grader at Dallas’ Hogg Elementary, gets stressed out when things go awry in his virtual classes. That’s when he picks up the phone for help.

“I’m so grateful that with the job I have, I’m able to answer my phone in between patients, because he gets worried when any little thing goes wrong,” she said. “It has been pretty stressful.”

Parents in the district were asked, over the past month, whether they want to continue to keep their kids in online classes or send them back into the classroom.

A little over half of Dallas ISD families have opted to head back to school when in-person instruction resumes, starting Monday for some groups of students, according to recently released survey results. The district’s plan is to have face-to-face instruction available at each of its campuses by Oct. 5.

For many, including Espinoza, the decision has been a balancing act: weighing the concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demands of child-rearing and jobs, and the desire to put their children in the best learning situations available during this crisis.

Finding that right balance, however, does not look the same for every parent or community.

A growing body of research indicates that Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and some of those realities appear to be reflected in the demographic data on who plans on coming back for in-person learning.

According to a parent survey completed by two-thirds of Dallas ISD families, 53.2% plan to return to in-person instruction when it becomes available.

That’s a higher rate than several other large districts in the Dallas area, many of which started in-person instruction weeks ago. For example, 47% of Plano families returned to campus after Labor Day, and 45% of Frisco students came back to school Aug. 13.

Irving ISD, which starts in-person instruction Monday, will have only 39% of students on campus.

A good bit of the variation in Dallas’ survey appears to be tied to student age. More parents are sending their elementary school students back for face-to-face instruction (57.4%) than high schoolers (47.8%) and middle schoolers (45.9%).

That’s true for Espinoza. She plans to send her third-grade and prekindergarten sons to Hogg for classes in person, but her eighth-grade son will stay in a virtual setting for the next nine weeks instead of returning in person to Hector P. Garcia Middle School.

“You know how teenagers are,” she said, “not wearing masks and not following the rules.”

Hogg’s small campus enrollment played a factor in Espinoza’s decision to choose its face-to-face setting, as did her comfort level with school administration and teachers.

The district’s data reflect that preference, too. In general, the larger the campus, the lower the percentage of in-person students expected back.

Other variations in DISD’s data cut largely on wealth and race and ethnicity.

In the district’s most affluent and least racially diverse campus, Lakewood Elementary, 4 out of every 5 parents indicated their desire to head back to face-to-face learning.

That’s far different at Oak Cliff’s Barack Obama Young Men’s Leadership Academy, where only 31.4% of its high school contingent showed a desire to return — the lowest rate in the district. Nearly all the academy’s students are Black or Latino and about three-quarters of them are from families who are struggling financially.

On average, campuses at either end of the socioeconomic spectrum have more families selecting face-to-face learning than the district average.

In general, the more affluent the campus, the more students who chose to attend in-person: For the 11 campuses in DISD with less than half of the students qualifying as economically disadvantaged, the decision to choose in-person learning was most pronounced, with 63.5% of families in favor of returning.

Schools that served 90% or more economically disadvantaged students were slightly ahead of the district’s average of returning students: 55.5%.

While schools with predominantly Black enrollment slightly exceeded the district’s average for families choosing face-to-face (56.5%), the percentage of majority Latino campuses (53.1%) was just under DISD’s average. For DISD’s three schools with predominantly white enrollment — Lakewood and Mockingbird elementaries, and Travis Talented and Gifted Vanguard — the average was 70.2%.

On Monday, DISD will start reopening its campuses in phases.

Students in grade levels that are new to that campus — for example, ninth-graders in high school or prekindergarten and kindergarten students in elementary — will return to in-person instruction.

The rationale for that move, as Chief of School Leadership Jolee Healey told DISD’s board of trustees this month, is to allow students to gain some familiarity with their new campuses before larger crowds return.

On Oct. 5, the remaining grade levels will be allowed to return.

But not every student who picked in-person instruction will receive it five days a week.

Trustees recently approved revising a waiver with the Texas Education Agency, allowing for a hybrid model for its 22 comprehensive high schools.

One group of students will attend face-to-face instruction on Monday and Tuesday, spending the remainder of the week in virtual classes. The other group will start their weeks online and go to campus on Thursday and Friday.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said during last week’s board meeting that all but one of the district’s comprehensive high school principals were strongly in support of the plans.

The district’s school board was also largely on board; only trustee Joyce Foreman voiced opposition to the measure, saying principals should have more autonomy to decide plans at their campus, and not be pigeonholed by central office administrators.

High schools, however, aren’t the only schools without a full-day, five-day-a-week model.

Because of the demand at Lakewood — with 801 students, or 82%, signaling their plans to return — district and campus officials decided to implement a hybrid model there as well. Students wanting in-person instruction will go to campus either in the morning or the afternoon each day.

Families can also temporarily transfer to nearby campuses for full-day instruction if desired.

Several Lakewood parents railed against the hybrid decision during Thursday’s board meeting, questioning whether the district could sufficiently clean the building over the lunch break. They asked trustees to consider rezoning to relieve crowding and implored the district to do attendance checks to ensure that all the school’s students lived in the area.

“It is so shocking to me that we would leave one school out and let those students suffer,” one parent told trustees.

Joseph Hildebrand, a father of an incoming Lakewood kindergartner who watched the board meeting online, said there’s a general sense of disappointment with the split-day schedule.

Other neighboring school districts such as Garland and Richardson started virtual classes without delay, and opened their doors for students sooner.

But DISD pushed its first day of virtual school from Aug. 17 to Sept. 8. And many of the district’s decisions have been made with little notice.

“It feels a bit like it’s just one thing after the other,” Hildebrand said.

However, any frustration and disappointment has come with “a lot of empathy and grace for the people trying to figure this out, from teachers to administrators to parents,” he said.

While the first day of in-person kindergarten won’t be what his family envisioned, it will certainly be memorable.

Hildebrand went inside the Lakewood building last week for the first time when he dropped off his daughter for assessment testing. He called it a surreal experience, “standing in a socially distanced line with parents and kids, and having a stranger take your daughter’s temperature.”

“It’s cool to see how resilient she can be,” he said. “It’s just not how you drew it up. But, on the other hand, it was exciting for her to do that.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Communities Foundation of Texas, The Meadows Foundation, The Dallas Foundation, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation, The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, and the Solutions Journalism Network. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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