It’s hard to state with any degree of certainty how schools will look when they restart regular academic programming this fall, education leaders said Wednesday during a Rivard Report panel discussion about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on pre-K-12 education.

“All of us are somewhere between the traditional – all of our students back in classrooms – and no students are back in classrooms and we’re doing 100 percent distance learning like we are now,” Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said.

The decision all schools face hinges on two pieces of information, said Woods, who leads the largest local school district: State guidance on how many students can be in a classroom and whether parents will be ready to send students back to class.

These are two questions that surfaced during an hour-and-15-minute discussion hosted by Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard. Panelists included Woods, San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray, East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano, and Raise Your Hand Texas director of policy Bob Popinski.

Here are four questions speakers said education systems will grapple with as schools prepare to reopen this fall.

Will parents be ready to send kids back to school in a few months?

Martinez, who leads an urban district of close to 50,000 students, identified building family confidence in schools as the biggest challenge his school district is facing.

“My fear is that the longer we stay at home and the longer the stay-at-home orders are in place, the more fear our parents will have, as well as our staff,” Martinez said. “We are going out of our way to really look at safety precautious.”

But if families are not ready to send their students back, they’ll still be able to access online district resources, he said.

Traditionally, Pre-K 4 SA has not created many resources for families who choose to educate their students at home. The pandemic has changed Pre-K 4 SA officials’ thinking, Baray noted.

“We are talking with families about how they are thinking about fall, but the reality is they don’t know either,” Baray said. “We are going to be ready either way to let families know [they] have the option to continue working remotely at home.”

If families do choose to keep their students home, there must be standards in place to maintain a quality education, Baray said.

In Northside ISD, district leaders plan to survey families multiple times to gauge their feelings about sending students back to school.

“Our goal is to go out and survey parents – and staff, of course – and ask their feelings about returning to school and in a little more granular way. What would make them feel more confident in returning to school, frankly,” Woods said.

How will students’ needs change because of the pandemic?

“We have definitely realized that the extent of the need beyond academics in our community is greater than we had even realized, whether we’re talking about basic needs, whether we’re talking about experiencing trauma in the past or in the very recent,” Toscano said.

Recognizing these needs and adapting to them has been essential to sustaining instruction, and they are likely to grow as time goes on, the ECISD leader said.

Martinez expressed a similar sentiment, noting that San Antonio stands out from his past education jobs in Nevada and Illinois as the most glaring example of segregation and poverty that he has witnessed.

“This pandemic has really shown the inequities even more,” Martinez said. “Those people who have lost their jobs, some jobs. Some of them won’t get them back. And they’re going to have an even harder and more difficult time.”

The SAISD superintendent is thinking about making his school facilities into better community centers so students can stay late for evening meals, internet access, and general safety. It’s not about returning to the state of the district before the pandemic, he said.

Baray added that she hopes to see a public utility for broadband internet come out of the pandemic, meeting the needs highlighted by the digital divide and remote learning.

How much of a financial hit will schools take during an economic downturn caused by coronavirus?

Woods sees three major components to the way schools must respond to the pandemic: the public health issue, the educational deficit that schools must address over the summer and into the fall, and a looming financial crisis.

Popinski drew a comparison between the current economic downturn and the Great Recession. In 2006, legislators orchestrated a “drastic shift in the way we funded schools” and “drastic property relief.” In 2019, the legislators brokered a similarly significant change in school finance.

A few years after 2006, “the economy [had] tanked and we were going into the 2011 legislative session with a $27 billion shortfall,” Popinski said.

State lawmakers made more than $5 billion in cuts from public education. School districts laid off employees and grew class sizes.

“We’re going to enter next session, next budget cycle facing a huge shortfall,” Popinski said.

The policy director emphasized that school districts will likely have a more stable next financial year because the money is already appropriated from the 2019 legislative session. However, money will be tight in future years.

Popinski recommended a few ways legislators could avoid cuts to public education: delaying some payments, short-fund Medicaid and settle it up in the next biennium, and use money from the State’s rainy day fund.

“Unfortunately in addition to the COVID crisis, we had an oil crisis as well, and the oil and gas revenue flows into our Rainy Day Fund,” Popinski said. “There is going to be some available, but they can’t use all of it.”

How will schools react should coronavirus cases surge and a campus need to close?

After the Texas Education Agency released several academic calendar options for districts to consider, some are thinking about lengthening their school year to create more breaks should coronavirus flare up and campuses need to be closed.

SAISD plans to start the year on Aug. 10, which would be among the earliest start dates in the area. The district is surveying families with questions about contingency options should an outbreak occur at a school.

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Baray noted that Pre-K 4 SA is also juggling these possibilities and the calendars of San Antonio’s many school districts, charter, and parochial schools. For now, the early childhood education entity plans to reopen on Aug. 17. Leaders are preparing for contingencies should one or more of the centers need to close again, Baray said.

The past few months underscored the need for school districts to have contingency plans to pivot and maneuver in the case of any development, Toscano said. This will allow school districts to switch between remote or in-person instruction, both of which might be a possibility come fall, he added.

“I think we’re all involved to one degree or another in thinking about where is the right place to be or to be ready to be,” Woods said. “I don’t think anybody can land on just one plan and hope that the situation allows us to execute that plan.”

Wednesday night’s event was the conclusion of a three-part virtual event series focused on education. The first panel focused on higher education and the second on workforce development.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.