First graders point out the correct answer in the memory game.
Area school districts are working on plans for the fall semester as the reality of the coronavirus pandemic shakes up the traditional approach. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Mike Villarreal believes we should all stop saying the phrase “getting back to normal,” especially when it comes to thinking about students’ return to in-person classes this fall.

“If I have one recommendation to my fellow parents, it is be adaptive – adapt to the new circumstances, be flexible,” said Villarreal, the director of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Urban Education. “It’s going to take awhile to ramp up a vaccine when it eventually gets created, but in the meantime, we all need to figure out how to move forward together.”

Villarreal echoed what many school district leaders have said as they begin preparations for next fall and the start of a new school year. Numerous uncertainties remain – Will the coronavirus still be spreading? Will a vaccine be available? Will the economy be fully reopened? – but superintendents plan to forge ahead and offer students an education while factoring in health and safety concerns present at the time.

That means parents should expect school to look different, Villarreal said.

To maintain social distancing standards in school facilities, class sizes would have to decrease. This may mean some students attend class in the morning and some attend class in the afternoon. It also could mean students will attend school on a rotating schedule, with some reporting for in-person instruction on Mondays and Wednesdays and others on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The student groupings could alternate on Fridays.

Schools facing overcrowding have done this before to winnow the number of students in a school building at one time, Ann Marie Ryan, a professor and chair of UTSA’s department of interdisciplinary learning and teaching, said during a UTSA panel discussion on education during the coronavirus pandemic.

Using a shifts system would mean the introduction of a different model of learning, with a portion of classwork done online, similar to how it has been delivered throughout this past spring, and a portion delivered in person. Educators call it “blended learning.”

Villarreal told the Rivard Report that teachers will need another “tool in their toolkit”: how to teach outdoors.

“How do we decrease our reliance on closed spaces and opt for strategies that allow for in-person [teaching] but decrease the risk dramatically, and one way to do that is to teach outside,” he said.

During the UTSA panel discussion, State Demographer Lloyd Potter underscored that there will be a “whole range of issues to manage” if students return to a classroom setting. Some students could be asymptomatic and unknowingly transfer an infection to their peers or family members. Others could be immunocompromised and not be able to participate in physical instruction.

School leaders across San Antonio are taking in all these factors and “scenario planning,” Villarreal said. But a number of district officials in San Antonio noted the difficulty of planning for various unknowns.

Northside Independent School District Superintendent Brian Woods emphasized the long list of questions school districts faced in the days after Gov. Greg Abbott announced schools would remain closed for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

Most questions could be answered, at least in part, if educators knew whether it would be safe for students to return in a few months. That remains a difficult projection to make, Woods said.

“I think the logistics about the fall are very much up in the air,” he said.

Woods said he thinks all students and their families hope they can return.

“But we’ve got to prepare for the possibility that couldn’t happen and either no students can come back or perhaps we have a smaller group of students come back and some others stay in a distance-learning mode. We have to make preparations for all of that to happen,” he said.

Judson ISD Superintendent Jeanette Ball expressed a similar sentiment, saying plans for fall likely will be fluid up until school restarts and that the factors shaping their plans can change almost daily.

“Never did I ever think that the governor was going to allow graduation, so we had made all our plans for us to have a virtual graduation,” Ball said.

Commissioner of Education Mike Morath announced Tuesday that districts could hold in-person graduations with certain restrictions. Now, Judson ISD is looking into what the announcement means for their students in addition to working on plans for fall. Ball said district leaders plan to announce what fall may look like after July 4, adding that there likely will be changes even after a plan is announced.

A spokeswoman for North East ISD said Wednesday it is too early to say what the fall could look like.

“The state isn’t even completely open at this point, so for us to predict what it would look like in August is premature,” spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said.

She added NEISD is planning for the possibility of complete campus closures, campuses to be open as normal, and various hybrid models in between. NEISD likely will have more details to announce by July, she said.

San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez is another superintendent strategizing for the future. On Wednesday morning, he acknowledged that the upcoming school year won’t look the same as the last.

With his district opening first locally, on Aug. 10, Martinez expects SAISD will allow smaller groups of students to attend class at a time. He is working under the assumption that 6-feet social distancing guidelines will still be in place, and district officials are assessing the capacity of each SAISD facility to see how many students could attend classes every day while adhering to those guidelines.

SAISD campuses’ capacities vary widely. At Bonham Academy, south of downtown, there is little room to spare, Martinez said. He noted that the school has already reenrolled 97 percent of its student body. But at Poe Middle School on the East Side, there’s enough space to potentially accommodate all students for a return to in-person instruction.

Kids participating at San Antonio ISD's Mexican American Studies camp eating lunch on June 14, 2019.
Students eat lunch at the Bonham Academy cafeteria last year. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / Rivard Report

At Poe, “we have the ability to bring 100 percent of the students in, even if we spread them across the classrooms and do social distancing,” Martinez said. At Bonham, “there’s just no physical way for us to bring in that many students and still achieve social distancing.”

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But on all campuses, there will be consistent safety guidelines, Martinez said. Interaction in large groups could be limited, with students mainly spending their days in individual classrooms, even eating their meals there. Social distancing guidelines also could be applied on buses, with routes organized to ensure students have enough space.

In a livestreamed interview with journalists from the San Antonio Express-News on Tuesday, Martinez said SAISD would use safety equipment to protect staff. He mentioned the district already ordered masks for staff “in case that’s a necessity.” The district also is buying plexiglass for each school office space to create an added barrier between staff and visitors.

Ball said her district also is looking into how to best use protective equipment. A new Judson COVID-19 response task force is to issue guidance on the matter after studying best practices to ensure the district is sufficiently cleaning, limiting people coming in and out of small spaces, and making sure strict hygiene procedures are in place when students are back in class.

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The group will make sure “each teacher is given the tools to make sure the desks and frequently touched areas are constantly wiped down with sanitizing wipes and towels, making sure we increase the frequency of our custodians’ cleaning in and out of classrooms, and of course doing our best to social distance our students,” Ball said.

Sole finalist for the Judson Independent School District Superintendent position Jeanette Ball.
Judson Independent School District Superintendent Jeanette Ball Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

No matter how students return to class, determining remedial education needs after so many weeks at home will be a focus.

Martinez told the Rivard Report his district will administer diagnostic tests so SAISD can figure out which students have fallen behind the most and identify who needs to be prioritized.

“In essence, we are looking at special needs children, we are looking at children who already were behind before the break,” Martinez said. “We will look at those students initially – students who don’t have access to the internet or reliable access. We are going to look at those students first and then from there just work with families.”

As Martinez crafts contingency strategies for bringing students back to campus, he is planning semester-by-semester, with hopes that conditions will improve by spring. But for now, his emphasis is on allaying the fears of his families so they feel safe bringing students back to school and learning can continue.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.