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Cotulla ISD reopens campuses for second six-week grading period…
Students at Cotulla ISD were able to return to their campuses for the first time since Spring Break on Monday, September 21, after administrators concurred that parents in La Salle County could be given the option of sending their children back into the classroom.
At his desk in the central administration building late last week, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jack Seals said he believes many lessons in how to teach effectively have been learned in the months since the coronavirus necessitated a complete lockdown in March. He is confident that campuses will be able to provide children with the instruction that they need, but braces himself for what he knows will be a restart beset with logistical problems.
Nevertheless, Seals believes that reopening schools to those children whose parents are ready to send them is vital to the continuation of an educational plan to which each is entitled and – more importantly – which each deserves.
Surrounded by documents, memos that run the gamut from the mundane to the critical, the district superintendent has reached the point in his decision making with regard to the future of all the children in his care that his strong faith in the capabilities of all district employees will help carry the day.
Cotulla ISD has waited an additional two weeks past its initial ‘campus reopening’ expectations to allow students back into the classroom this week, having now ensured that coronavirus contagion in the county is at its lowest and that there has not been a spike in virus patient numbers during the fortnight after Labor Day.
This week’s reopening coincides with the beginning of the second six-week grading period. All of Cotulla ISD’s students have been receiving their instruction remotely since the first day of the new academic year, Monday, August 10.
Special accommodations are being made for reopening campuses in Encinal and Cotulla, where health and safety of all students and staff will be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Not least of these alterations in the way a campus is populated will be the necessity for additional classroom space. In the case of the Ramirez/Burks Elementary School, students in the fourth and fifth grades are being taught in the former middle school buildings on Carrizo Street while those in other grades are spread out in every available remaining space on the elementary school campus. Teachers whose students occupy more than one room will be supported by paraprofessionals and substitutes, so that each child receives the same instruction, relayed via the support staff.
The Encinal Elementary School is open to students from pre-Kindergarten through fifth grade and has a number of additional rooms, workspaces and study areas to ensure that youngsters are kept at appropriate distances from each other and likewise receive their instruction from teachers aided by support staff.
A different approach has been necessary for secondary-level students across the district, as the middle and high schools may not have enough space to accommodate all on-campus students at appropriately safe distances. Students have therefore been grouped alphabetically into ‘A’ and ‘B’ schedules, taking turns on campus on alternate days. When they are not at school, they receive their instruction remotely at home via life feed and on other media platforms from their teachers.
At the Frank Newman Middle School, administrators are faced with having to use their campus in ways that could not have been anticipated when the school was designed only a decade ago. Students in grades 6, 7 and 8 whose parents have chosen to send them back to school are spread throughout the campus on alternate days, appropriately distanced.
Cotulla High School also faces a number of challenges in its reopening plan, as the campus built in the late 1970s is not ideal for instruction offered to a large student population spread across multiple instructional areas.
Supt. Seals believes the ‘A&B’ schedule for the middle and high schools gives every returning student at least some time on campus, in person in the presence of a teacher. He adds that he believes the plan represents the district’s best solution to meet the demands of the community’s parents.
“All of these plans have been devised with student and staff safety as their number one focus,” the superintendent said Friday, the last workday before Monday’s reopening. “We have had some experience with students being on campus since the first day of school in August, as the children of teachers and students with special needs were being given their remote instruction inside school buildings, appropriately distanced and monitored according to health and safety protocols.”
Supt. Seals said the district’s decision to reopen, which was ultimately made by the school board of trustees, came after lengthy deliberation and examination of instructional plans as well as the recommendations of administrators.
“We were prompted in this decision by the efforts of the community to take proper precautions in public, which have kept active COVID cases down to zero or close to zero,” Dr. Seals said. “We also heard recommendations from the county health authority, Dr. Gregory Roth, who based his decision on his own research and the opinion of other agencies.”
The superintendent describes the overriding health and safety protocols across the district as representing “all precautions that are reasonable and practical.”
“We are ensuring the safety of students and staff, and by virtue of our relationship, the community will be safe,” Dr. Seals said. “Whatever happens at school will play a big part in how the community will be affected. We are all aware of the fact that if children catch the virus at school, they can take it home and impact their families.”
Special measures extend to the district’s bus fleet, where students have to be kept at distances from each other on their way to and from school. The protocols call for many more vehicles than the district owns, because a 72-passenger bus can now only accommodate 13 children.
“Because of that, we have had to stagger daily school start times,” the superintendent said. Cotulla ISD has to re-use its bus fleet several times a day, and vehicles are disinfected between uses. “We send more buses out and get everyone to class. We are having to double and triple our bus routes.”
Students who come to school are now served their breakfast and lunch in the classroom instead of a crowded cafeteria where they would have to wait in a serving line. Those who take their instruction remotely can continue collecting their meals from the curbside service that has been in place since August.
“I want to recognize this Herculean effort put into preparing and delivering instruction during the first six weeks by our teachers and administrators,” Supt. Seals said of the tasks undertaken by district staff during the pandemic and the forced lock-down. “The quality of instruction between the spring and fall has been like night and day. My hat goes off to all of them.
“We expect to be ironing out wrinkles, and there will be bumps in the road,” the superintendent said of the district-wide reopening plan and progress made this week. “We are asking for understanding. This is going to be a very large and difficult task, to teach in class and simultaneously giving remote instruction.
“It’s a work in progress,” Dr. Seals said. “It’s as though we are trying to build an airplane while we are flying it.”