Roland Toscano, Superintendent of Schools.
Roland Toscano, superintendent of East Central ISD, has prepared his district for online instruction, which begins Monday. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the San Antonio Report

Students around Bexar County woke up Monday for their first day of school. Instead of walking down the halls to join teachers and friends in their new classrooms, they’ll be powering on devices and logging in to their first classes online, as most school districts won’t welcome students back on campuses until after Labor Day.

It’s the new norm at a time when the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District has declared the risk of coronavirus spread is still too high for in-person instruction.

And while most students may believe they know what to expect with distance learning because of their experience this spring, school leaders cautioned that remote instruction this fall won’t be the same.

“We have taught for decades in person and that’s the way we’ve done things and we had five days to pivot [in March],” North East Independent School District Superintendent Sean Maika said. “What we’ve done is really taken the lessons that we learned in the input from our teachers, our students, and our community and really transformed what we do.”

Maika’s district contains two campuses that started the school year earlier this summer – Castle Hills Elementary and the Academy of Creative Education, a nontraditional high school. Both have offered only online instruction thus far. The weeks they have been open taught NEISD leaders some important lessons about reopening campuses.

The biggest lesson was having technical support readily available, the superintendent said. With all students using devices and internet from home, this is especially important to ensure students don’t get disconnected from teachers for large chunks of time.

Stephanie Hall Powell, the founder of new charter school San Antonio Preparatory Community School, also underscored the importance of tech support. When her 200 students logged on to their first day of class last week, issues cropped up that required some help.

“We expected to have quite a few tech issues, especially because during orientation we only gave tech out,” Hall Powell said. Because many of the students still had to learn how to use the programs, Hall Powell anticipated having to close that gap on the first day.

When tech issues arose, Hall Powell encouraged students and teachers to adapt and stay flexible. The charter school’s teachers debriefed after day one, and day two was a “100 percent improvement.”

East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano anticipates needing to work out some kinks in the first few days but advised parents and students to prepare for more robust academic programming as the semester continues.

ECISD students, like students in most other school systems, will be able to choose between two forms of remote learning. The “synchronous” option requires students to sync up with their classes and receive instruction in real time, while the “asynchronous” option permits students to learn at their own pace.

“We’re going to be able to provide access to instruction from anytime and any place and that’s something we’ve always dreamed of being able to do,” Toscano said.

Maika expressed similar excitement at the idea that students can access remote instruction whether or not they are within district boundaries. One NEISD student is currently in quarantine in South Korea with family but will be participating in remote learning from there. The pandemic opened the borders of school districts, he said.

For parents and students, there is likely to be uncertainty surrounding the first day and few weeks back to school.

Maribel Gardea, a co-founder of parent advocacy group Mindshift ED, has two kids enrolled in San Antonio ISD. She expects to keep her kids learning remotely for the foreseeable future and is eagerly awaiting the first day of school to get a better idea of what that will look like.

“I have a lot of questions that have yet to be answered,” she said.

The districts starting school Monday – Alamo Heights, East Central, Edgewood, Fort Sam Houston, Lackland, North East, San Antonio, and Southside ISDs – plan to keep campuses closed to students until after Labor Day. Last week, Boerne, South San Antonio, and Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISDs began class. Only Boerne ISD opened campuses.

After Labor Day, district officials may begin bringing kids back to campus, although they have the power to restrict the number of students choosing face-to-face instruction for up to the first eight weeks of the school year.

Next week, class will begin for Comal, Harlandale, Judson, Northside, Randolph Field, Southwest, and Somerset ISDs. Comal ISD also plans to open campuses on the first day of school.

For more details on campus reopening plans, click here.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.