It’s after midnight when Gabriella Munoz, 18, comes home, legs weary from waiting tables for eight hours. She sits down at her computer and mulls the economics chapters to read and math problems to finish before returning to another day at North Garland High.
This is Munoz’s new routine since the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted her life and left her older sister, who made nearly half of the family’s income, out of a job.
After struggling to keep up with remote learning this spring she was excited to engage with her teachers in a classroom during the first eight weeks of the fall semester. But Munoz, who lives in Rowlett, quickly found her new and unpredictable work hours made it hard to stick to the school schedule.
Based on her experience last year, she’s worried.
“School was very rough for me and I barely passed because I didn’t feel like there was a point,” Munoz said. “The only thing I wanted to do was to go to work and make money because I can look at the money, I can use the money.”
Now, Munoz fears her chances for going to college are in jeopardy as harder courses demand more time and focus that already disadvantaged students like her no longer have.
She is among a more vulnerable group who are considering putting off college because of disruptions caused by COVID, prompting experts to warn that the pandemic may be increasing an achievement gap based on socioeconomic class.
“This whole situation has shed light on the inequity that has existed for a long time,” said Michael Arreola, principal at North Garland High School.
The obstacles for low-income students — no access to tutors, no space to study and new demands to work or take care of siblings — affected many students at the school last year, he said.
In Texas, about 70% public schoolchildren come from families that are struggling financially. Across the Garland Independent School District’s seven high schools, the rate is almost that high — 65%.
District officials noticed last spring that many students didn’t finish their work because of limited access to computers. So Garland ISD handed out more than 10,000 wifi hotspots along with Chromebooks and iPads, which boosted student participation, said Diana Montgomery, Garland ISD’s student success coordinator.
For schools with large numbers of low-income students, that extra technological support could mean the difference between temporary academic losses and those that last long into the future.
“It creates a deeper sense of urgency,” North Garland High School Assistant principal Mark Booker said. “If we are not careful, if we don’t approach our work this fall with fidelity and make sure that we are pushing and fighting for all kids, then we are losing a whole generation of them.”
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The problem with online courses
A number of studies show that online courses are less effective than traditional in-person ones.
For instance, researchers at Stanford University found that students who took an in-person class earned roughly a B-, while their peers who took the same class online received a C.
The study cites multiple factors for the lower scores. Limited contact with teachers may cause students to feel less pressure to succeed. The flexible schedule also puts students with poor time management skills at a disadvantage.
Another study by McKinsey & Company found that students fell behind at a faster rate as the level of access to technology and support at home declined. Over a period of 10 months, students with the worst online experience could lose 7 to 11 months of learning. Those who received no instruction missed a year or more of progress.
After the Garland school district moved to virtual classrooms last spring, about 2,300 of the 16,660 high school students stopped turning in any assignments at all, district data show. But in May, after schools provided hot spots and iPads, about 400 of those students started submitting work.
The switch to virtual learning made Munoz realize how much she had benefited from talking to her teachers in person.
“Even though I still struggled with some subjects, I would always fix it because I would have that face to face communication,” Munoz said. ” I would go to tutorials and get help or just go after school and talk to my teachers about anything.”
In nearby Frisco, Faiez Qureshi, a senior at Lebanon Trail High School, describes a different experience with virtual instruction. At his school, only 10 percent of students are low-income.
“My family made an office so I would have a designated room where I could concentrate on doing my school work,” Qureshi said. “I had my own technology and ended the school year with good grades. I feel like it was honestly easier.”
Qureshi, who comes from a higher-income family, took his AP Exams in a comfortable environment, feeling more than prepared.
Meanwhile, Munoz decided to not take any of her exams, feeling it was pointless to try.
Reflecting on the issues at home
To understand the problems families face, Arreola, the principal at North Garland High School, often holds parent meetings. Many work blue-collar jobs that prevent them from helping their kids, he said, making them afraid that their child wouldn’t pass because of their circumstances.
“A lot of parents echoed to us that they were afraid that their kids wouldn’t be able to pass and advance because of their situation,” Arreola said. “I think a lot of that came with guilt of feeling like you’re not good enough because your kids are not doing well right now. But that’s an unfair expectation to have for themselves.”
Last year, school administrators called students who were not completing assignments. Sometimes they reached students while they were at work and trying to squeeze in time during their breaks to complete assignments.
One student was failing his classes. Both his parents had lost their jobs, and he picked up full-time work shifts to help. Before, he had been a varsity letterman in every sport, with his grades never lower than an 85.
Arreola hopes that, beyond North Garland High, the education system confronts the ongoing issues of inequity by providing more technology and resources into low-income areas.
“I just hope that there is a real focus on helping kids and closing gaps.” Arreola said.
As the last school year ended, Munoz decided to stay in school but devoted most of her time to work.
“My mom was sort of upset about that but in my head, school is long-term,” Munoz said. “But, with money I can make it right now. I can use it right now. “
This fall, Munoz dropped more challenging Advanced Placement classes, which count as college credit and can save students up to $600 for each course they would have taken at a university.
Meanwhile, Qureshi began private tutoring that cost $1,700 and helped him prepare for college entrance exams and applications.
“It was a classroom environment where I could focus and complete practice tests,” Qureshi said. “I could sit down with a teacher individually and go over everything I missed and exactly what I did wrong and exactly how I could improve. It was pretty helpful and I got my score higher.”
Now, Qureshi is looking at colleges like UT Austin, Rice and Stanford as he plans on studying medicine.
Qureshi knows how much his financial resources have helped him compete for elite colleges.
Munoz is on track to complete enough credits to graduate one semester early, in December, but still hasn’t decided whether she will attend community college or work full time.
“I had big plans and I’m kind of sad,” Munoz said. “I wanted to go to university but I can’t afford it. It’s not that I gave up, it’s just there’s always a different route to take.”