Roland Toscano, Superintendent of Schools.
East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the Rivard Report

San Antonio superintendents are hoping in-person classes will resume as soon as April 6, but at the same time they are making contingency plans for closures to extend into the summer amid unprecedented uncertainty, several school leaders said this week.

Those plans followed comments this weekend by Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, who said schools should be prepared to deal with coronavirus’ spread through the end of the school year.

“We are planning for the rest of the school year,” San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez said Tuesday.

East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano said area superintendents are talking weekly to discuss the most recent guidance from Morath and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Morath holds daily calls with the state’s more than 1,000 superintendents and has discussed potential developments that could allow schools to reopen.

“That would be [that] there are no cases in your community, there are no longer cases in the broader community, that we don’t have any more quarantine folks,” Toscano said. “We’ve all become pretty clear that this is more about us being united in doing our part to flatten the curve and be preventative as opposed to reactive. We’re definitely more open to extending closures and more open to keeping staff away and things like that, that maybe we were initially more resistant to consider.”

The superintendents find themselves dealing with situations that change rapidly. Just a few days ago, Martinez said he was determined to keep the schools open. Since then, more San Antonio cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and Mayor Ron Nirenberg has announced additional public health emergency restrictions, banning public gatherings of 50 or more people.

Local superintendents plan to evaluate school closures on a two-week basis, Toscano said, adding families should be planning for the long term. In his own district, Toscano and other East Central ISD leaders are looking at how schools will operate at least eight weeks in advance.

Toscano said San Antonio’s superintendents had discussed a decision by Dallas ISD made earlier this week to close schools indefinitely. While they felt parents should know that longer-term closures could be expected so they could arrange child care, the school leaders saw a disadvantage in declaring an indefinite time frame.

“We … felt like the downside of that was if things take a turn for the better in the next week or two, it’s going to be hard to undo an indefinite or later closure,” Toscano said.

In both East Central and SAISD, students often struggle with challenges at home and rely on schools to provide resources and support that fosters a sense of normalcy and stability. For example, many families rely on schools to feed their students at least two meals a day.

Schools committed to serving meals and arranged pickup sites for families. But for Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods, that’s just one area of concern when kids are out of class.

His concerns are keeping kids and staff safe, continuing instruction, and feeding students. Succeeding in each area is easier in the short term than in the long term, Woods said.

“Those three things, that’s going to get more challenging in the [long] term than it is now,” Woods said. “Especially with regard to feeding and with instruction.”

Northside ISD has a large stock of electronic devices for student use, but school leaders know many students may not have access to internet at home. The district is working to acquire wireless hotspots that could accompany any devices loaned to students, Woods said. Another “low tech” option for continuing instruction is using paper packets of schoolwork.

Even before school districts’ announcements Tuesday that in-person class would be canceled through April 3, educators were preparing instruction for home settings and adapting to unforeseen obstacles as they encountered them.

Two issues that superintendents don’t have answers for: special education services and how credit will be awarded for students in upper-level grades.

Students receiving intensive special education supports won’t be able to receive the same services in a home setting, so district leaders are mulling if they could keep campuses open for a small number of special education students.

“That is the question of the day,” Toscano said. “We’re not talking about just the basic instructional accommodations, because we are programming for all of those things. We are looking for some guidance and direction. The commissioner is beginning slowly to offer a little bit of clarity as he gets more federal guidance.”

Woods identified significant challenges related to how educators award credit.

There are committees already in place for fifth- and eighth-grade graduations to decide whether or not a student should progress to the next grade level, Woods said. The hardest part of the process is deciding whether or not a student has earned a credit.

All superintendents agreed that more questions are sure to arise in the coming weeks in the midst of unprecedented circumstances.

“You’ve seen schools close for relatively short periods of time for a whole host of reasons, some of which involved illness, other involved a natural disaster,” Woods said. “I cannot think of a time where you saw such broad-spread school closure across such a wide swathe of the United States around any issue.

“It’s a monumental undertaking to do things like instructional continuation and feed kids even if you’re just focused on those two priorities. There’s a lot that goes into getting those things done.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.