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After a month of ‘hybrid’ schooling…
A little over a month ago, students and teachers at Dilley ISD dived headlong into the unknown, beginning a school year half in and half out of the traditional classroom, and their new superintendent believes the plan has worked well so far.
When school districts in South Texas assessed their capabilities of reopening fulltime and allowing students back onto their campuses at the height of the summer’s coronavirus pandemic, many announced they would stay closed, much as they had been shuttered since Spring Break in March. At Pearsall and Cotulla ISDs, all students have had at least a month’s worth of completely remote instruction. Their schools have yet to reopen.
At Dilley ISD, however, administrators chose to try at least a partial reopening, opening their doors cautiously, testing and re-testing all those who passed through them for possible signs of the coronavirus, and plastering their campuses with distance markers and safety reminders.
Hired as the new superintendent for Dilley ISD during the summer, Dr. Emilio Castro found himself almost immediately saddled with what could only be described as an extraordinary plan to conduct the
academic year in as normal a fashion as possible.
Supt. Castro does not shy from acknowledging that the untested and unproven plan for a ‘hybrid’ school year is one fraught with challenges, not least of them the lack of hours in a day for teachers to do their job twice.
Dilley’s students were given a choice in August, either to return to their campuses for schooling in the manner to which they were accustomed, or to stay home and take all of their lessons via online platforms, video conference, and email. Parents were surveyed shortly before the start of the new academic year, and approximately 40 percent indicated they were interested in sending their children back to school. The rest were firm in choosing the stay-home option, largely out of concern for health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic.
Once the decision had been made, parents would not be allowed to change their minds and pull children out of school at a moment’s notice or deposit them on campus unannounced.
On the first day of school, only 25 percent of the district’s students showed up for class. Supt. Castro was unruffled and said he believed the number would gradually rise to expectations. Within a week, it had.
Today, the superintendent believes about half of Dilley’s students are coming to school every day. Of those who are staying home, he says, an appreciable number are enrolled in co-curricular and extracurricular activities and can come to school in the afternoons for sports practice and band rehearsals as well as a host of other activities and clubs, if their parents will let them.
The remainder are settled at their computer screens and have virtually no personal interaction with their classmates or teachers except by video.
Supt. Castro believes that some parents who have kept their children at home for the first six weeks of school will opt to send them back to campus at the first opportunity, which will be the start of the second six-week grading period.
“Everything is working well, and the bright side is that we surveyed parents to determine expectations, and gave them a choice between having their children stay on campus or stay at home,” the superintendent said Monday. “We expect over fifty percent to want to go live, in other words be on campus, in the classroom, in front of the teacher.”
Castro agrees that the shift will not be a large one. Many parents, he says, are likely to choose continuing online education.
He adds that he believes it is because some parents have seen that Dilley ISD is maintaining strict social distancing protocols and has kept up its policy of continually cleaning all common areas and deploying ‘covid custodians’ to sanitize all critical areas throughout the day, that they are willing to let their children come back to school.
Furthermore, with the exception of one staff member at Dilley Elementary School, no student or employee has been diagnosed with the coronavirus or put others in danger by exposure since the start of the academic year. In the case of the staff member, Castro said, notification was made early and quarantine was immediate, helping eliminate all possible further contagion.
“People feel we are doing all we can to be safe,” the superintendent said. “We can assure people that we are being safe.”
Beyond the continual sanitization, the safety guidelines and the distancing protocols, however, lies the greater challenge for Dilley ISD’s teachers. Almost all of them are teaching in the classroom to a reduced population, then going online and giving instruction to those at home, and in many cases spending their evenings re-teaching all the same material they covered during the school day for those at their computer screens.
For the remote-instruction students, Castro says, the challenges lie in working through the many distractions that he believes exist in the home environment.
“The fridge, that’s one of the big ones,” the superintendent said. “Students are at home and can get up from their computers whenever they wish, go to the fridge and get whatever they want. Then they are distracted by others in the home, by friends, by television, and by the internet. It’s a lot to deal with, and teachers have to get through to them in spite of it all.”
Castro believes the only solution is to implement a strict schedule for online instruction, aligning it with classroom time, and live-streaming the classroom itself into the students’ homes, thereby engaging them in all aspects but one: their physical presence.
Dilley ISD has ordered web cameras with which to supply every classroom teacher, and will ask all teachers to broadcast their standard classroom instruction to those at home, in real time.
“We asked a lot from the teachers, maybe more than was doable,” the superintendent said of the workload that the new hybrid school year brought. “They’re teaching in person, in the classroom, then they’re preparing their online instruction, and then they’re live-streaming for the students at home… It’s a lot.
“The teachers have been amazing, working at it,” Castro said, “and the students at home are working… but not all.”
The superintendent knows that there are some Dilley students who have not been taking their curriculum in the same amounts, at the same time, or even as completely as those attending in person. He believes it is vital that the district meets the challenge of reaching those who may be left behind.
“We have a substantial number who are not engaging,” Castro said. “They are at home, but are they online all day? No. Some of them are working with intervals, and this can be a problem.
“We have to get them onto a schedule, so that we have a better opportunity to get them their instruction,” Supt. Castro said of the students who are staying home and who may be missing portions of their curriculum. “Students need to see their teachers every day. They need that contact. We have to ensure better engagement.”
Dilley ISD has also hired an instructional technology specialist whose job will focus almost entirely on ensuring that all stay-home students are connected to their teachers, that all technical glitches are resolved, and that the lines of communication are open between teachers, parents and students. An added bonus, Castro said, is that the new employee is bilingual and can reach parents for whom communication with the school district is difficult.
An increase in the versatility of classroom videos, instructional videos, and even student-made films to demonstrate their learning or exhibit their work will further enhance Dilley ISD’s connectivity and student-teacher interaction, Castro said, as well as the vital social interaction and peer-to-peer learning experience that some students lack in the remote environment.
“Some teachers are already doing live-stream instruction at home, after hours, which extends their day a lot,” the superintendent said. “Grading work and assessing student progress has to be the same. We have to be able to determine what students are learning and how they’re doing. We have to be able to grade them equally.”
The ‘new normal’ may not be very normal for students, teachers or parents alike, and Supt. Castro agrees that while the school district has mastered many of the challenges it faced at the start of the school year, there will be more ahead.
His message is one of reinforcing consistency. He plans to stay the course.
“We have consulted with state health authorities, the hospital, and with the Region 20 Education Service Center, and we believe that if we continue enforcing the mask orders, maintain distancing protocols, sanitizing, encouraging hand washing, if we continue cleaning our campuses, we will be as safe as we can be,” the superintendent said. “We believe it, and everyone else understands and believes it too.
“We are doing the best we can, for the sake of the children.”