With Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement last week that Texas school campuses will remain closed for the duration of the school year, school leaders say they will shift their focus to planning for the summer and trying to anticipate how continuing efforts to contain the coronavirus might affect the start of school in August, acknowledging that many uncertainties remain.
Leaders of several San Antonio school districts told the Rivard Report that a normal return to campus this fall is not guaranteed, but educators still want to move forward with one objective: Learning must go on.
San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez emphasized that the district wants students to continue learning through late May when SAISD’s school year officially ends.
“Our buildings will remain closed but learning will continue,” Martinez said Friday.
Ever since local superintendents announced in March they would extend spring break by a week and then extended school closures into April, families waited to hear what would become of the rest of the school year. Now, Martinez and other local district leaders are also focusing on how schools can keep students learning over summer break and preparing for the fall, even though in-person classes are not guaranteed.
Before school leaders decide to reopen campuses in August, they will weigh the advice of state and local officials. It would be hard for any school leader to invite teachers or students back if there are still stay-at-home orders in place, said Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods, who leads Bexar County’s largest school district.
“The logistics about the fall are very up in the air,” Woods said. “Obviously, I think school people, to include students and parents, hope that [students] can come back in a much more normal setting, but we’ve got to prepare for the possibility that that couldn’t happen.”
He added that education leaders would also want to see that enough diagnostic testing for the coronavirus has been done to inform an accurate picture of the disease’s spread.
“[We have to prepare] that no students can come back, or perhaps you have a smaller group of students come back and some others stay in a distance learning mode,” he said. “I think we have to make preparations for that all to happen.”
In the meantime, SAISD will allow students to keep devices like laptops, tablets, and mobile Wi-Fi hotspots owned by the district into the summer so they can keep logging onto instructional websites, Martinez said. He underscored the need to meet students’ needs for such devices – and data plans for them – for as long as necessary.
When coronavirus first began spreading in the United States and campuses closed, some internet providers offered special promotions to keep the first few months of internet service free for low-income families or students. That’s not enough, the SAISD superintendent said.
“We need 12-month plans,” he said, indicating how far in advance districts may be planning.
This summer, SAISD plans to offer credit recovery courses to high school students who might need additional instruction to stay on track and graduate on time. Planning for both credit recovery and summer instruction will take place over the next month, Martinez said.
Leading into the next school year, SAISD likely will offer some kind of programming for students to get additional academic support, Chief Academic Officer Patti Salzamann said.
In a typical school year, SAISD’s master teachers work with struggling students during the summer to build a stronger academic foundation before the semester begins. A 2020 summer program, conducted onsite or remotely, could work similarly, expanded to include more students who fell behind while campuses were closed.
Woods also sees summer as an integral time to help ensure students are caught up academically in time for the start of the next academic year. The district plans for summer academic support to occur both in-person and remotely.
“We think we’re going to probably need to invite a lot more students to summer school than we have traditionally,” Woods said. “That has logistical implications and budgetary implications, so there’s a lot of variables there that have some level of unknown.”
Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft is preparing for the same considerations in Southwest ISD. Verstuyft and his district’s staff is planning for summer programming now that the major school closure decision has been made for 2019-20.
While Verstuyft hoped at first that the coronavirus pandemic would force only a temporary interruption in learning, he now knows the resulting closures have the potential to create real educational lapses for his students.
“There’s really no replacement for face-to-face teaching and human interaction that takes place between an educator and his or her students in the classroom,” Verstuyft said.
The longtime education leader, who oversees a district in Southwest Bexar County that enrolls almost 15,000 students said his district is preparing to offer summer sessions using distance learning.
Southwest ISD school leaders will begin developing plans for individual students based on specific deficiencies in math and reading.
“I think as we get to summer we can assess what happened from spring break from March to the end of the year where our students are,” Verstuyft said. “It will definitely impact what happens next fall, and so is not knowing if we’re going to start next fall in a virtual environment or if we’re going to have an opportunity [to start in person] by then depending on local metrics.”
“There’s a lot of unknowns still and we’re going to remain positive to try to minimize the gaps in our students now, whatever gaps exist.”