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“Everybody’s concerns are for the students’ safety…”
Administrative committees have been established at local school districts to evaluate all proposals for a reopening of campuses in time for the 2020-21 academic year, which is set to start in mid-August.
To date, no local district has published its plan for parents and students to examine, as school boards have yet to approve measures aimed at ensuring student safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schools in Frio and La Salle counties closed after Spring Break in March this year under orders from the Texas governor. School administrators expressed fears that the highly communicable coronavirus would spread between students in the classroom environment and in other school activities, causing extreme sickness or death. Online classes, assignments by email, and conference-style instruction on the Zoom and other webcam platforms continued for the remainder of the academic year.
Among additional concerns for student safety in the new school year, when districts are given the green light to reopen, are those related to transportation, foodservice, classroom space under social distancing guidelines, routine disinfection of school buildings, and the viability of holding co-curricular and extracurricular activities such as band and sports.
At Cotulla ISD, curriculum and instruction director Eddika Ramos said this week that district committees have begun drafting plans that will be presented to school board members in the weeks leading up to August 10, the expected first day of the new semester.
An overview of those plans was offered to board members at a special meeting last week.
Ramos echoes concerns among all South Texas parents when she says there are fears that the virus pandemic will affect the quality of education, access to resources, and safety on campus when classroom space is limited.
Logistical complications related to the mass movement of students between classes at any campus, Ramos said, may be resolved by keeping students in a designated area and having teachers rotate between rooms instead. It is one of the proposals currently under discussion at Cotulla ISD.
The district has published a new parent-student survey that is being offered this week on the Cotulla ISD website and through social media, assessing the community’s concerns and needs in advance of the new school year. While the survey is predominantly formatted in ‘click-response,’ Ramos said, parents are given space to express concerns in their own words or ask questions of administrators.
Ramos believes all districts presently face the same core concern.
“This has been our main obstacle so far,” the curriculum director said. “Are we safe to go back to school in person? It’s the biggest question facing everyone, parents, students, teachers and support staff.”
Ramos said the concern is that schools will not be able to adhere to social distancing guidelines, keeping students appropriately spaced in classrooms that were not designed for such an arrangement; that districts may have to deploy larger fleets of buses to bring children to school in spaced seating patterns; and that students will be at risk of virus exposure in crowded areas such as cafeterias and band halls, and at sporting events.
At Cotulla ISD, work crews have been clearing space at the former middle school campus on Carrizo Street, which may accommodate fourth and fifth graders, thereby giving more space at Ramirez/Burks Elementary School for students in pre-Kindergarten through third grade.
Other school districts may not have spare buildings available for a wider distribution of students.
“All extracurricular activities are still suspended,” Ramos said on Monday. “Football and band… this will be determined by the University Interscholastic League. All UIL-related decisions will be factored into our scheduling plan.”
School districts are examining the possibility that the new academic year will involve a combination of online, video conference, and in-person instruction.
At Dilley ISD, administrative facilitator Melody Carroll said this week that the administration expects to present a back-to-school plan to board members on or about July 20. A letter with instructions for the new school year will be sent to parents after that, and student registration is set for July 21 and 22.
“We are still working on getting reports together, suggestions and recommendations based on the established health and safety guidelines as well as the community’s concerns,” Carroll said. “This is very much a work in progress.
“I agree that everybody’s concerns are for the students’ safety,” Carroll said. “But we are also addressing a lot of the other issues that are connected to that, such as transportation, classroom space, and just how to manage large groups, such as during lunch. How can we do that?”
Dilley’s administrative facilitator says her office is tasked with a wide range of jobs, but believes the district’s two special committees addressing the return to school have a broad view of the challenge ahead. The groups are focused on instruction and district-wide health and safety.
“The committees have to look at things that a lot of people wouldn’t think about, and it all comes back to safety,” Carroll said. “Athletics and band? How can we possibly organize those things safely? The committee members are very attuned to the community’s concerns. I believe they are listening to what’s out there.”
Dr. Filomena Leo, interim superintendent at Dilley ISD, receives twice-weekly updates from the state commissioner of education, which she then relays to administrative staff and faculty.
“We are getting the latest from the state, and we are adapting as we go,” Carroll said.
At Cotulla ISD, Ramos expects additional challenges to the back-to-school plans as the pandemic threatens rural communities.
“Things are changing every day,” Cotulla’s curriculum director said. “We need to be prepared for every possible scenario.”