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School districts adapt to COVID-19

Virtual or social-distance graduations, delayed summer school among changes

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San Antonio school leaders are weighing options for how next semester’s classes are conducted if the coronavirus threat lingers.

Meanwhile, some districts will begin summer instruction later than usual, despite an OK by state officials to return to classrooms as early as June 1.

Alamo Heights and San Antonio independent school district students can report to class in July, representatives from both systems said.

Monte Vista-based Keystone School, an independent institution serving youngsters in all grades, will hold its annual summer camp during that timeframe, said William Handmaker, head of school.

The delayed start would give pupils and educators a break from academics, while districts continue to monitor government guidelines.

“We have gone hard this spring with what we have asked from our teachers and students, so we need a little breathing room,” said Jimmie Walker, AHISD executive director of curriculum and instruction.

North East Independent School District is maintaining the traditional June start of summer sessions, as it wants to give struggling learners additional time to improve grades, spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said.

Summer courses will be conducted virtually at the start, but may extend to campus attendance in July.

“We don’t want our students to fall behind because they haven’t been in class for so many weeks,” Chancellor said of NEISD’s decision.

The format in which instruction will be taught at the start of next academic school year will be determined as restrictions loosen statewide.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez forecasts his district using a “blended” model, which includes online and in-classroom instruction; pupils would be present on campus either biweekly or in weekday shifts.

Struggling and disadvantaged students might have to attend daily classes “depending on what the need is,” Martinez said.

AHISD and NEISD officials are awaiting national, state and local government health guidelines to determine fall plans. Walker said she spoke with academic representatives from Denmark and Japan to get guidance on protocols they implemented to restart on campus.

Those actions mirrored ones nationwide that leaders are recommending – social distancing, hybrid learning and closed lunchrooms.

“We want to go (into 2020-2021) with our eyes open, so that we have a lot of time to get the details right,” Walker said.

Struggling and economically disadvantaged learners, especially from SAISD, where more than 90 percent of its 48,600 population is impoverished, would be the first groups of students prioritized for in-classroom instruction, if allowed to return, local academic leaders said.

Special-education pupils would largely benefit from such teaching as they’ve faced challenges adapting to the virtual format since schools shuttered in March.

Remedial services they typically receive in classroom – speech and physical therapy – have been difficult to provide under the new normal, especially as parents subbed in as teachers, while also juggling job and family responsibilities.

AHISD remedial learners meet with instructors virtually at daily designated times to receive these services, Walker said.

Local educators credited those pupils’ kin for adjusting.

“We are in constant contact with those families that are in need with what they need, providing them speech and other types of therapy,” Chancellor said. “(It) can be challenging online when you’re not able to have that in-person connection, but we are doing the best we can while following the rules of what we are supposed to be doing now.”

Student absenteeism in the virtual classroom, or with outside-of-class assignments, is another obstacle local educators had to tackle.

Some 2,000 SAISD learners missed online classes, Martinez said.

At NEISD, 2 percent to 4 percent didn’t engage in distance learning, said Chancellor.

No such issues at AHISD and Keystone, though Walker acknowledged circumstances prevented some students from constant participation.

San Antonio and North East school leaders attribute absences to teens joining the full-time workforce, or relocations as families become jobless due to the pandemic. Attempts to contact the missing students have not been abandoned as educators constantly make calls, send text messages or pay visits to homes.

“We are not trying to get anyone in trouble,” Martinez said. “We want to support (students).”

COVID-19 had an impact on many academic events, including high school graduation ceremonies.

In May, state officials placed restrictions on how commencements could be conducted this year; school districts could recognize seniors with a virtual or socially distanced outdoor affair, drive-by procession or digitized video featuring graduates’ photos.

Keystone and SAISD hope for summer, in-person graduation festivities.

SAISD will honor its seniors at Alamo Stadium in June, while Keystone is aiming for an August celebration of its graduates. Late summer commemorations would be dependent on graduates’ availability as some of them could be attending out-of-town colleges.

“The seniors have been incredibly outstanding,” Handmaker said. “We are doing the best we can, and they realize that. (Keystone’s senior group) is a really close class, and they want to be able to celebrate each other.”

NEISD commemorated its 5,000 graduates with both a virtual and in-person ceremony, limited to both graduates and their families in May.

AHISD said goodbye to its some 400 high school seniors with a 6-feet-apart, face-to-face, outdoor commencement June 2 at Real Life Amphitheater in Selma.

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