Hope, fear and hula hoops. How four Texas schools are preparing to bring students back into classrooms.
Public schools are about to become the next front line in a state struggling to control the coronavirus pandemic. Here's what it's like on the ground at four of them.
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Across Texas, teachers and staff are readying the classrooms, hallways and cafeterias that will become the next front lines in the battle with the coronavirus pandemic.
While much teaching will continue online, most of Texas' more than 1,000 school districts want to bring at least some students back to campuses.
It’s a tense moment, a fraught experiment to see whether students and educators can return to campus — and a semblance of a normal school year — without triggering further spread of the coronavirus and debilitating weakened communities.
Educators are aware of the risks, knowing it is possible that colleagues and students could become infected, even die. But they also believe there is value in getting kids back into schools. With enough masks, plexiglass shields, hand sanitizer and other precautions, they are hopeful of keeping their students, themselves and their communities safe.
Most are turning to guidelines set by the Texas Education Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, moving desks, installing dividers and putting up to signs to remind students — and each other — to keep a safe distance.
It's taking some creative problem-solving.
Here is how some Texas schools are getting ready for reopening.
Hula hoops and tape
In a normal school year, the Premont Ernest H. Singleton Early College Academy in Premont ISD would have about 360 students. This year, the South Texas school will start virtual learning in late August. It hopes to begin bringing students back to campus in mid-September, though special education students might return earlier.
When the school reopened briefly last June, Superintendent Steve VanMatre hit on the notion of having rambunctious elementary schoolers wear hula hoops in hallways to keep away from each other.
He was afraid kids would end up fighting with the colored rings. But the young students became adamant that no one come near their personal circle.
It seemed to work, so the hula hoops will be back.
“These are kids and fun is still a big part of their day,” VanMatre said. “It’s turned into a really really effective strategy for social distancing.”
Given the relatively few cases in his county — as of Tuesday there were 208 active cases and 16 deaths in a county of more than 40,000 people according to the Jim Wells County website — and the fraction of students expected to come back in person, VanMatre feels confident about the measures his schools implemented.
There will be portable sinks for hand-washing, desks divided with plastic partitions and cubbies with individually bagged blocks and supplies for students.
A few teachers have taped off their desks and seating areas to create a clear marker between their space and class space. Student temperatures will be checked twice, first when they get on the bus or arrive at school and again during lunch. Arrival and dismissal times will be staggered, VanMatre said.
At the district's Premont Collegiate High School, about 230 students, 70% of its usual 330 students, are expected back on campus after the initial distance learning period, and more will be taught through live videos and webcams. Students won't always be eating in the cafeteria, and locker rooms have been turned into meeting spaces. Face masks and shields have been ordered for all students and faculty.
Until a robust coronavirus swab testing program with instant results is rolled out to schools, VanMatre’s thoughts of a worst-case scenario will linger.
"Absent of that I stay up a lot at night," VanMatre said. "Think about the worst-case scenario for a school superintendent. You have a student or a staff member that tests positive, gets sick and dies and you had made the decision to open schools and ask those people to come to work. That's a terrible responsibility that could have terrible consequences regardless of how well your protocols are implemented.”
Internet crashes and disinfectant
Two weeks out from a return to virtual learning at Judson High School northeast of San Antonio, the school's internet went down during a professional development day, so journalism teacher PJ Cabrera switched to rearranging and disinfecting his classroom.
Teachers have to be flexible. They’ve developed school shooting plans and whipped up emergency online learning curriculums when schools suddenly went online in the spring, he said.
Adapting is part of the job, but Cabrera is increasingly frustrated that guidance from top officials is constantly changing as he tries to figure out how to best educate students in an unprecedented situation.
"I think education, in general, is as prepared as we are going to get in a situation that is incredibly foreign for everybody and a situation that is constantly changing from the county level up to the top to the state level,” Cabrera said.
About 25 minutes from downtown San Antonio, the high school serves more than 2,700 students. The school plans to have remote learning for the first two weeks of the school year and hopes to bring students who meet specific criteria, like not having internet connectivity at home or being the child of a first responder, in after that. By late September the option to return to campus will be open to all students.
Paul Chapa, a world history teacher, recently cleaned up his classroom for the first time since spring break and added a poster of Disney's Cinderella castle behind his desk to use as a background for Zoom meetings with students.
Sandra Grogan, a freshman English teacher, positioned her desk under an air vent with the fan blowing air away from her.
There are some plastic partitions and warning signs about social distancing in the main office, but teachers said the only personal protection equipment the district has provided them is disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer and paper towels. The school hasn't implemented the same robust safety measures, such as social distancing signage, in hallways and common areas as other schools.
Along with getting up to speed on learning software, Cabrera, who runs the school’s newspaper and yearbook, is largely focused on how to keep extracurricular activities going. The newspaper will be able to adapt more seamlessly, but Cabrera isn’t sure how they’ll handle putting together a yearbook when there are no activities like pep rallies and homecoming to fill its pages.
For the most part, students aren’t excited to go to school for their core classes like English, math and science. What excites students is “the fun stuff” like band and yearbook club, Cabrera said.
"In order for us to have an enriched curriculum, we still have to offer extracurriculars," Cabrera said. "We still have to get them engaged into school. How that's going to happen is going to be very, very different, but we're going to try our best to do it.”
Toys aren't for sharing anymore
Teachers at San Antonio's Paul W. Ott Elementary are trying to figure out how to teach pre-kindergarteners basic concepts like sharing when it’s in everybody’s best interest to be a little territorial.
Sharing used to be an everyday affair, but now students must stick to their own toys during socially distanced playtime. Spaces meant for groups are limited to pairs, and instead of community markers and crayons, each student will be equipped with their own baggie of school supplies not to be shared, said Madeline Bueno, school principal.
“Those are the things we never thought we would have to experience, but that’s where we’re at right now,” Bueno said.
Teachers and students will pick up with virtual learning on Aug. 24, but Bueno said the Northside Independent School District has yet to announce when students can physically return to campus. Bueno expects it will likely be after Labor Day, but the date will be based on guidance from the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.
Much of the school’s safety equipment and directives came from the health district. The school has installed plexiglass, posters with health guidances and social distancing stickers on the floors. Legos and other toys in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms are individually bagged and must be cleaned by the teacher with district-provided disinfectant after each use.
Bueno gave each teacher general instructions for how to set up their classroom, but the execution varied. One teacher zip-tied baskets to the bottom of students’ chairs so they have a place to store their backpacks germ-free.
“This will be my 23rd year setting up a classroom … and I could do it in my sleep until this year because I had to think about every single thing in my room,” said Carrie Gray, who teaches 5th graders.
Anticipating how students will interact with space, teachers thought through desk placement, where to put workstations and the protocol for opening up their classroom libraries, if at all. It took most teachers hours and days to get their classrooms set up as close to “right” as they could, Gray said.
Christina Escarcega, who teaches kindergartners, set up an interactive Bitmoji classroom that mirrors her real-life room. She’s hoping the cartoon background will put students, some who will be in a classroom for the first time in their lives, at ease.
"I want to be hopeful for the kids that they come in and they're comfortable and not scared,” Escarcega said. “We're not sure of their experiences they had when they were at home in the summer. We don't know if families were sick, we don't know if their parents lost their job, so hope would be the number one, to give them hope.”
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