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Meeting technology demands, Pearsall ISD distributes hundreds of new computers
When the coronavirus began spreading across Texas in early March, administrators at Pearsall ISD looked to the first resource they had at hand, adapting an emergency plan originally designed for response to a flu outbreak, and stressed that a school shutdown should not interrupt education.
The plan worked, and was ultimately adapted to meet the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schools in South Texas closed their doors after the Spring Break holiday and offered all instruction remotely, connecting students with teachers via laptop computers on the internet.
Superintendent Dr. Nobert Rodriguez said he approached the crisis with a single aim, namely to ensure the continued wellbeing of all students and staff while the business of education progressed without a hitch.
At the district administration building, technology director Jesse Hinojosa set in motion a plan to put a portable learning device in the hands of every student in the district who may need one, and to promote an instruction delivery system that would do more than mimic the classroom experience: It would replicate it in every aspect.
It was a tall order.
Today, halfway into the third six-week grading period of the academic year, Pearsall ISD shows an average 95-percent attendance rate among all students enrolled in both on-campus and remote learning, and at the last reporting had registered a mere six-percent failure rate in any class by the high school student population.
Approximately sixty percent of Pearsall ISD’s 2,100 children are taking their classes online.
Distribution of Chromebook computers to students in all grade levels was accelerated during the closing weeks of the last academic year. By May, an estimated 900 students at Pearsall ISD had been issued computers to take home. A further 500 Chromebooks were ordered at short notice.
Supplies of the devices were becoming “as limited as toilet paper,” Supt. Rodriguez said, as schools were closing across the country and demand for the computers rose sharply.
Today, more than 1,700 students are working with school-issued computers. The remainder either have their own computers at home or are about to receive one each of a further shipment of 500 Chromebooks.
Hinojosa and Supt. Rodriguez are joined by Assistant Supt. Sonya Martinez in a collective sigh of relief that the emergency plan they have pushed aggressively since March continues to be effective.
Not only are students taking exactly the same instruction from their teachers whether in the classroom or out, but coronavirus contagion has been kept at a minimum. Only 16 individuals in the district have tested positive for the virus, and there were no active cases at PISD as of Friday, November 13.
By Monday this week, two cases had been added to the list.
“We have been very fortunate since March,” the superintendent said on Monday. “We created a plan to help the students, to educate the community as to where we were in the situation and what we were going to to, and we informed parents what was expected of their children.
“When COVID-19 became a national crisis, we had already been strategically planning,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “We needed to keep the students learning. We had to carry on as if the students were still in the classroom. It was a question of keeping them engaged.”
The superintendent credits a countywide meeting early in the crisis between government officials, city and school representatives as well as healthcare providers and emergency responders for clarifying expectations, outlining possible needs, and keeping the public informed of the work underway to continue providing essential services. Not least of these was education, and the school district has updated its website with a dashboard that gives an outline of current standings and serves as a portal for vital bulletins.
“We were not the only district going into remote learning,” Hinojosa said of the initial response. “We ordered five hundred Chromebooks, and we were very fortunate that we received the same model of device that we were already using, so the process of putting them into service was seamless.”
“We don’t have as many issues with students experiencing trouble with connectivity at home as some districts have,” the superintendent said. “It’s the same setup, at school or at home, and we showed concerned parents that it would be the same plan of instruction.”
Technology upgrades and ongoing supply purchases at Pearsall ISD have been helped by local government grants, among them a contribution of $113,000 from the city of Pearsall and $56,000 just delivered by County Attorney Joseph Sindon on behalf of the commissioners’ court.
An October shipment of 900 Chromebook computers to Pearsall ISD includes the new touchscreen version of the device, which Hinojosa describes as vital to the education of the district’s youngest students.
“That was a huge deal for us, and it’s been an incredible bonus for the students at the elementary school level,” the technology director said. “It really brought every dimension of their education home to them.”
“When COVID-19 hit, the teachers kept on teaching, and they followed the lesson plans that were built on a framework that functioned just as well, at home or in the classroom,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “The standard would be the same. Our student engagement rates prove that it is effective.”
There are no excuses for missing a remote-instruction class at Pearsall ISD. The classes are recorded; students can see their teacher and interact with each other as though they were sitting in the same room; the district has made at least 120 internet hotspots available, with seventy more coming soon. Added to that tally will be at least 525 hotspots made available free of charge to Pearsall ISD by T-Mobile as part of a three-year agreement.
“I think our teachers are doing a phenomenal job,” the superintendent said. “That job is to keep the kids on track. It’s been exceptional at every campus.”