When state leaders recently gave the green light for schools to slowly begin bringing students back into classrooms, south Texas school superintendent Steve VanMatre was one of the first to jump at the chance.
For weeks, VanMatre had been worriedly tracking how many of his Premont Independent School District students were logging into an online platform and completing assignments. Just under a third “had really dropped off the face of the earth,” he said, significant in a 600-student district where nearly all are low-income and Hispanic.
This Monday, most students across the state are on summer breaks. Many larger urban and suburban school districts are keeping their buildings closed for those attending summer school, though the Texas Education Agency said it is not tracking this information and cannot provide a statewide count.
But at Premont ISD about 80 kids of all ages will spend June 1 through 4 learning inside their school buildings for the first time since schools closed to forestall the coronavirus pandemic. Handpicked by their principals as needing extra learning, they will serve as test cases for a superintendent eager to get instruction running, and confident he can keep them safe.
With only two schools, VanMatre hopes the district can keep students safely away from each other. But the unpredictable nature of the virus keeps him up at night.
“One of the questions that we haven’t answered yet is: what do we do when one of our students in these phases tests positive? Do we shut everything down? Do we quarantine the class? What about community spread?” he said. “I’ve asked it several times but I just haven’t gotten the response that makes me feel comfortable.”
No one in Jim Wells County, a tall narrow block near the border with Mexico, has died from COVID-19 and just nine people are known to have contracted the virus.
The stakes are high for this once-floundering South Texas district, best known for its 2012 decision to suspend all athletics rather than risk state-mandated school closures after its students’ test scores had been dismal for years. That move was widely seen as daring in football-wild Texas, but it worked, helping officials extract their schools out of financial and academic disarray, far from the brink of forced closure.
Now, a few years after taking on the role of superintendent, VanMatre is leading the community through another turning point and hoping it once again goes Premont’s way. Like many school system leaders during an unpredictable pandemic, he is balancing students’ educational needs and their safety.
“I’ve really really worried that as time goes by and we don’t have our children here: are we going to lose everything that we’ve gained? That has played a role in my anxiousness to move forward,” he said. “But by the same token, I’m not going to do anything that’s unsafe.”
School districts were forced to deliver lessons remotely this spring as the state closed all school buildings, stretching many to their limits. Few had the devices to provide students who didn’t have computers of their own, and even fewer had the number of WiFi hotspots needed to guarantee every student was connected to the Internet. In Premont, a number of students started working to help their families, with parents who lost jobs to the pandemic-fueled economic shutdown. For some, VanMatre said, spring break has lasted from March through May.
State guidance encouraged school districts to prioritize in-person summer school for the students they suspected lost the most ground: students with disabilities, homeless students, those who were already academically behind.
Even so, large districts in more densely populated areas chose not to take the risk of exposing their students and staff to a virus that has already killed many in their communities. Some said the state’s late May announcement allowing reopenings left them little time to prepare all the safety protocols, staffing and transportation an in-house program would require.
Houston ISD, the state’s biggest, announced last week it would hold virtual summer school for more than 40,000 students, including live video lessons with teachers. “Our virtual summer school plan is a continuation of our commitment to ensure our students continue to be safely engaged academically and prepared for their grade level during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said in a statement.
Dallas ISD considered opening its school buildings for kids with special needs and pre-K students, but shied away after realizing it would be hard to find enough staff to show up, said Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. “We really don’t know if there’s going to be some big flare-up,” he told the Texas Tribune. “There’s just too many unknowns.”
VanMatre, previously superintendent of neighboring Freer ISD, self-describes as “not the easiest person to work with,” moving a mile a minute when he sees a problem that needs to be addressed. The same day Gov. Greg Abbott announced Texas schools could open for summer instruction starting June 1, VanMatre announced his plans for Premont ISD on his Facebook page.
A few parents have told VanMatre that they will not send their children to school, this summer or in the fall, including the one who responded on his Facebook page, “My kids will continue to stay home and do homeschooling thank you.” One mother asked VanMatre to guarantee her that nothing bad would happen to her child, and he responded that he could not.
“I also extended my answer to tell her, ‘Unfortunately, even absent the virus, I could not have guaranteed that,’” he said. “We do everything we can to protect these kids and that hasn’t changed.”
Following state guidance, in-person summer school will be optional for all students and a virtual option will be provided. With parental permission, students’ temperatures will be taken before they enter school buildings. Masks will not be required but they will be “available,” VanMatre said. After the first four days of a small-group trial, Premont ISD will run two weeks of summer instruction in mid-June for anyone who wants to attend. That version will require more staff, more classrooms, frequent transportation runs, and staggered lunches, VanMatre said.
What Premont ISD learns from its summer program will inform how and whether it opens back up in early August for another school year. The school board has already approved switching its calendar to a year-round configuration, but VanMatre is considering ending the first semester around Thanksgiving, cutting off a potential second wave of coronavirus infections.
But despite his inclination to move quickly, he has to wait and see what local districts and universities are planning. Most high school students in Premont ISD take some classes at local colleges or neighboring school districts, through a partnership called the Rural Schools Innovation Zone. If Premont ISD changes its schedule, it could throw students off course.
The series of calculations he must make has serious consequences for his families. Working parents could lose their jobs if they can’t find a child care plan when the district is closed. Students may decide not to come back if they’re away from the school building for too long. In multigenerational homes, grandparents are at greater risk of dying if their grandchild infects them with COVID-19.
“I really worry that this virus is going to be so unpredictable….when we see people getting sick and dying and there are grandparents and our neighbors and it touches us more directly than someone in New York,” VanMatre said.
Meanwhile, students and parents are eager to get back to normal, despite their fears of infection. “I’m okay with going back there as long as they try really hard to make sure we’re all washing our hands to make sure none of us get the virus. Stuff like that to make everybody feel safer,” said 15-year-old freshman Dos LaFuente.
Like many high schoolers, LaFuente is lamenting the abrupt end of his track season and the distance from his friends. He prefers learning at school, where he can ask the teacher if he needs help right away, instead of emailing them and waiting days for an answer. He worries that the new school year will not bring a return to normalcy, packed classrooms and athletic competitions and passing friends in the hallway.
“I just want everything to go back to the way it was,” he said.