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North SA schools start year online

Educators trying to plan for classroom return during pandemic

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North East Independent School District’s Castle Hills Elementary School, a year-round magnet campus, began its academic year July 21 holding only virtual classes. Other NEISD schools open Aug. 17, but sessions will be taught remotely until after Sept. 7. Due to the pandemic, families across San Antonio will decide whether their children are instructed via e-learning, in the classroom with safety protocols, or a hybrid of both. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Schools in north San Antonio are starting the academic year with remote learning while administrators grapple with how to safely open classrooms amid an upswing in COVID-19 cases.

After Gov. Greg Abbott shuttered campuses last spring to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, prompting distance learning or lesson-packet pickups for pupils, this summer the state ordered public schools to reopen for the fall semester.

Places of learning are conducting at-home teaching through at least Sept. 7 (Labor Day), with the option of continuing virtually, in-person or a hybrid through October.

The goal is to eventually return all students to face-to-face instruction, though many parents, pupils and teachers statewide say to wait until the pandemic subsides.

North East Independent School District reopens Aug. 17 and Northside Independent School District, Texas’ fourth largest, begins Aug. 24.

“We will continue to develop protocols for a return to school buildings and in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so,” NISD Superintendent Brian Woods said in a statement.

An NEISD Facebook page stated, “While we recognize that this may be a challenging year, we are embracing the opportunity to expand and maximize learning for all students.”

The Texas Education Agency issued health guidelines for public schools, saying social distancing, self-screening for symptoms, face coverings, and other measures will help ensure a safe resumption of in-person classes.

San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, responding to additional positive COVID-19 cases locally,  directed Bexar County schools to provide only virtual learning for at least the first four weeks of their new academic year.

“This directive considers the higher risk for spread of COVID-19 in schools due to their confined spaces, and the challenge for children in following social distancing and hygiene guidelines,” Director Dr. Junda Woo said. “Reopening will happen in phases, based on COVID-19 metrics.”

But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced July 28 that Texas school districts would not be guaranteed continued state funding for solely remote instruction done under blanket pandemic closure orders, such as the directive given by Metro Health.

Officials from North Side school systems said instructing students online over the first few weeks of the new academic year will help employees, students and community members adequately prepare for the reopening of campuses to in-person classes.

In NEISD, schoolhouses will be accessible for essential services such as meal pickups, student registration and other support functions.

One North East campus — Castle Hills Elementary School, normally a year-round magnet institution — resumed classes July 21, but online only.

Regarding religious schools,  Paxton said local public-health orders attempting to restrict or regulate reopening of such campuses are unconstitutional and inconsistent with Abbott’s edict.

Some private and charter institutions, such as Great Hearts Texas academies, plan to allow students to learn from home.

To help protect on-campus instructing, Great Hearts Texas academies will mandate temperature checks for everyone, and follow state and local mandates on facial coverings.

BASIS Charter Schools will implement distance learning and in-person instruction. Those on campus will deal with coordinated entry into buildings, health screenings, physical distancing, mask requirements, and self-contained classrooms, officials said.

The Winston School San Antonio plans hybrid teaching this fall, combining in-person and virtual-learning options. On-campus safety measures require all occupants cover faces while inside, and undergo temperature checks.

Despite efforts to enact safety measures over the summer, several Texas school systems suspended or curtailed strength and conditioning programs after coaches and student-athletes either tested positive for the novel coronavirus or said they were exposed to an infected individual.

The Texas State Teachers Association and other groups have criticized the state over campus-reopening plans.

A coalition of local teachers, parents, scholars and grassroots activists wrote state leaders requesting Texas schools institute remote-only learning while delaying on-premises sessions for at least two months.

“In our assessment, the minimum criteria for reopening schools have not been met, and Bexar County public schools cannot be reopened safely under these conditions,” stated their July 14 letter, which included NEISD and NISD representatives.

Meanwhile, school systems are adopting budgets, revamping instructional calendars and addressing more routine matters.

NEISD approved a $564 million budget — $4.6 million smaller than last year.

Administrators there are delaying employee pay hikes until they can clarify student enrollment and future state school funding.

NEISD also tweaked its 2020-2021 calendar, handing students more educational time in the classroom, including turning three originally scheduled holidays into early-release instructional days.

“Making a huge change to the academic calendar without seeking input from our community is not something we have ever been prepared to do,” Superintendent Sean Maika said in a statement. “We have a very robust process for approving a calendar, and we remain committed to that.”

As to reopening campuses, he added, “Please be patient with us.”

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