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Education: Now and Ahead

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The global pandemic has changed the way San Antonio-area schools conduct learning now and for the foreseeable future.

From public to private institutions, local communities face serious challenges including keeping students healthy, bringing learners back to campuses or instructing remotely, handling teacher brain drain and preparing for more shutdowns.

Spring Break and goodbyes

In Cibolo, when Watts Elementary School teacher Wendy Dylla said farewell to her second graders for Spring Break, she didn’t realize last March would be the final time she’d see them in person.

From a local union:

“We’re seeing many old ventilation systems in many of SAISD’s school buildings, and knowing that COVID is spread through airborne transmission is worrisome. … Our priority for this year is to work together to ensure that working conditions are the absolute safest possible, to create a situation that humanizes our workers, our students and our parents. We as educators are committed to giving our students the absolute best education that they can. But in the middle of a pandemic, there are just so many other factors to consider. We have to consider the situations of our families and the families that we serve.”

Alejandra Lopez,

union president, San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel (San Antonio Independent School District)

“Before we left for break, (officials) told us, ‘Take your things with you because a COVID closure is a possibility,’ but we never thought that this would happen,” Dylla said.

But, within days, it did. Gov. Greg Abbott eventually ordered the shuttering of statewide campuses. Summertime saw the greater San Antonio area school systems — public and private and their corresponding new online classrooms  — navigate constantly changing educational and safety guidelines, struggling to ensure a safe fall reopening.   

The COVID-19 crisis created new obstacles for schools. Suddenly, teacher-student communication needed reinvention, requiring campuses to launch online classes for the first time, as officials looked to maintain pupil safety, follow state directives or risk losing essential funding.

In reality, the pandemic didn’t create disparities in local educational systems. It magnified them.

“I think we’ll be learning to live with the virus until there is a widely accessible, safe and effective vaccine. In the short term, the vaccine could take months,” said Dr. Junda Woo, medical director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. “On the long side, that could be years. Of course, we all hope it’s not that long.”

The outbreak has inordinately affected area minorities.

According to Rogelio Sáenz, a professor of demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio, local Latinos are more likely to be frontline workers, live with preexisting conditions, share homes with older family members, and less inclined to have health care access. They’re also more susceptible to contract or die from COVID-19.

In addition, reports show the younger Latino population is more vulnerable nationally.

“Children across the U.S. have shown relatively low COVID case numbers and mortality rates, but nationwide, the death rates for Latino children are nearly seven times that of their white or Black counterparts,” Sáenz said. “These are not things that just happened today or within the last few months. These are long-term health qualities and inequalities that have been here for years.”

Private schools

Private schools were also affected by state-mandated closures in March, with most pivoting to offer students a choice between in-person or remote education in the new grading period, semester or school year.

For Jaime Len Cooke, a mother of two who owns a local event-planning company, face-to-face education was best for her family. Her sons — Deacon, 5, and Aden, 12 — attend Cornerstone Christian Schools and Keystone School, respectively. The boys were ready to return to the classroom, she said.

(Left) Deacon Cooke practices physical distancing at Cornerstone Christian Schools as part of ongoing COVID-19 precautions. A local ordinance to keep students from attending faith-based institutions before Labor Day was successfully challenged by the school (below). Courtesy photos/Jaime Len Cooke

Cornerstone initiated two critical lawsuits this past summer. In one, the institution sought to dismiss a local ordinance banning public and private schools from holding in-person classes before Labor Day, citing a violation of the campuses’ “religious freedom.” In the second, Cornerstone deemed a Metro Health directive for both public and private schools to post COVID-19 case numbers on their website as “unconstitutional.”

Cornerstone won both suits, effectively allowing all private, faith-based Texas institutions to resume in-person classes on their own timetables. While both private and public school administrators must still report all coronavirus case data to Metro Health, the agency dropped its order requiring the figures to appear on school websites.

“Deacon went back, in person, on Aug. 17, and it felt almost like any other first day of school. I still cried as he walked away,” Cooke said. “The only difference is I couldn’t walk him into the classroom. All the students were wearing little masks and looked like little zombies with their arms out, walking and making sure they were 6-feet apart.”

She credits her boys’ smooth campus transition with their administrations’ daily communication updates, resources to build and create new COVID-19-friendly learner spaces, and access to student advisers and medical professionals within the parent population.

“We’ve been blessed, and we’ve had it easy, considering our schools are just so focused on safety precautions, communication throughout the processes and protocol plans. My heart breaks for the parents who can’t afford to stay home or keep up with school meetings and changes. There’s definitely a gap between the parents who can and those who can’t.”

Who’s left behind?

Most San Antonio-area schools began remote learning in August prior to reopening classrooms in early September. Some offered a choice of distance or face-to-face learning, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Metro Health guidelines as they continue populating campuses incrementally.

Following the initial school shutdown in March, districts struggled to reconnect with thousands of pupils citywide. In San Antonio, where one in four households lack internet access, it’s not surprising several districts have yet to account for all learners.

“There’s a myriad of reasons that certainly attribute for the loss of those kids, certainly there are some who are not engaged,” said Barry Perez, a Northside Independent School District spokesman. “Early on, our fear was loss of connectivity and technology so the district has provided Wi-Fi hot spots, Chromebooks and laptops to those students that request them.”

For Heriberto Castro, a science teacher for seventh and eighth graders at Bernal Middle School in NISD, the key to connecting with those missing students is a mix of persistence, engagement and understanding.

Instructing more than 150 students this year, Castro uses apps such as Zoom, Google and Bernal’s learning management system to adapt lessons for the 78 he sees in person, and the remainder online.

“I’m trying to make it as engaging as possible, and I try to keep them motivated to keep them coming back,” he said. “I have a few kids that I’ve never seen who are still turning in work, and a few that have not. We reach out to students and parents, and they know we want to see them. But, we know that every home situation is different. I want them to know that we are here to help if they need assistance with internet, a hot spot, or anything.”

Social-distancing reminders are an increasingly common sight for San Antonio schools, including Keystone School, during COVID-19. Courtesy photo/Jaime Len Cooke

San Antonio’s brain drain worries

Texas school districts have long struggled to retain experienced and engaged educators, even before the crisis. According to state records, one in 10 Texas teachers quits after the first year. More alarming, as the pandemic continues, the problem could deepen.

Last July, the Trump administration mandated campuses to reopen nationwide. Abbott soon followed the president’s lead, urging school officials to begin plans to bring Texas’ teachers and students back to the classroom safely. Educators, health experts and parents responded with concerns.

Zeph Capo, union president to the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, warned of inevitable mass resignations and strikes unless safety conditions and instructor access to personal protection equipment improved.

“We’ve heard from a significant number of (Texas teachers) who say they’re just not going back, or they’re taking leave for the rest of the year, or will return to teaching once it’s safe again,” Capo said.

Capo also noted an uptick in state educators ordering retirement packages — nearly 4,000 more than same time last year — ahead of the fall semester.

“They haven’t all necessarily acted on them yet, but it is worrying because each teacher that’s eligible to retire is another teacher that we could lose any day now,” Capo said.

While definitively determining why one leaves a profession is difficult, local records indicate that more than 40 San Antonio-area district teachers resigned between August and September 2020.

Citing issues such as a lack of readily available personal protection equipment, longer workdays and increased workload, the Northside AFT union is trying to improve communications between district personnel and instructors, plus demand the district allow more members to work remotely when dealing with preexisting health conditions or issues regarding family safety.

“Things are not looking good for local education,” said Northside AFT President Wanda Longoria. “We are already seeing the loss of incredible longtime teachers in the district. COVID-19 will go away eventually, but good luck filling those positions. The thing is that these problems didn’t start with COVID; teachers haven’t been funded adequately for over a decade.”

Staying remote

While NISD began welcoming students back to campuses Sept. 7, parents such as Drue Placette opted then to continue remote instruction for his kids.

“The (North East Independent School) district still has all the same rules and expectations for our schools, and we wear masks every day, at all times. At Stone Oak, we have masks and sanitizing stations around the school. (There are) single-use cups next to the water fountain now, that can be disposed after. The students are very mature about following the new rules; they knew changes were coming. They still run around on the playground, except now we have stations so not everyone is playing on monkey bars or the slides all at once. Their imagination is amazing.”

Ana Ramones,

fourth grade dual-language teacher, Stone Oak Elementary School, San Antonio

Placette, a venerable San Antonio tech titan, shares custody of his four children with his ex-wife. He credits their teamwork, along with his mother, a former teacher, and his wife, Debra, with making the children’s school year successful. However, he realizes living, working and learning during these times is daunting.

“On the first day of remote learning, the NISD systems were crashing from an overload of students trying to log in at one time,” he said. “It’s not the teachers’ fault that this is what the school year looks like, but the constant changes and inconsistencies that happen every day make school super hard for the kids. These teachers are trying to do everything virtually, even PE, and it doesn’t always work.”

Each weekday, the children undergo remote learning from Placette’s offices at CANopener Labs, a startup-friendly development space opened on the North Side in 2019. Though the district offered 10-inch tablets for students to access Zoom classes and homework, Placette’s connections allowed him to create a custom, multiple-monitor workspace for each kid.

Ella, 4, has since begun attending local day care, while Liam, 9, Sean, 12, and Payton, 15, log in to their respective remote classes at Aue Elementary School, Rawlinson Middle School and Clark High School. Placette knows distance learning inhibits his children’s social interaction with their contemporaries, but he’s also seen how families have been devastated by COVID-19. There are still many unemployed San Antonians, and in other families, many pupils may navigate remote learning alone while parents work.

“I currently teach my classes remotely, but at the end of every Zoom I tell them to take a break from the screen. ‘Don’t sit in front of the Xbox or PlayStation.’ We are in stressful times, so it’s important for them to hydrate themselves and their brains. I tell them to get outside. ‘Please, just jump outside and be kids.’ Back at school, I know they’ve created mask-free zones so students (can) step into a space, one at a time, and get in some deep breaths before recess ends.”

Heather Thornblom,
3rd grade English language arts  and reading teacher, Watts Elementary School, Cibolo

“We are lucky because we have the ability to take care of the kids, and we’d rather keep them home and keep some consistency,” he said. “If they were to start in-person classes and a week later, the school closed again because of an outbreak, it would just stir up everyone’s schedules.”

Special-needs students adjust

As youngsters began returning to campuses this fall, most schools brought back struggling and special-needs students first, giving teachers more time for one-on-one questions and attention. But for some, remote learning means more opportunities to ask questions and practice skills, even if it’s outside regular school hours.

Amber, 14, a freshman at Founders Classical Academy of Schertz, usually wrestles with her schoolwork. As a pupil with learning disabilities, she follows a detailed 504 plan. Federal section 504 requires that children who do not quality for special-education services still receive accommodations for an education equal to non-disabled students.

Though more than 60% of those enrolled at Founders are once again on-campus students, Crystal Moubray, Amber’s mother, wasn’t ready for her schoolchildren to go back yet.

“Our family has taken nearly every possible precaution, but we still tested positive for COVID. All of us — myself, my 6-year-old son and my significant other — except for Amber,” Moubray said. “She had to get tested for the virus, and I don’t think she wants to go through that again. She would rather be home.”

As the family recovers, Moubray is able to oversee the remote-learning process. She was surprised how drastically Amber’s grades improved via distance learning.

“At home, Amber doesn’t have the anxiety of worrying about what everyone around her is doing. She doesn’t have to read out loud; she isn’t wondering, ‘Am I the last one done?’ She can take breaks throughout the day,” Moubray said. “It works for her; she’s getting A’s in subjects that she’s never gotten before.”

“The coach at (Advanced Learning Academy) in (San Antonio Independent School District) has done a phenomenal job with creating age-appropriate activities for the remote kids. The school gave us some resources during a drive-by school pickup. Each kid got a special bucket with a tennis ball, scarves, a pool noodle cut into rings and a set of drumsticks. I didn’t know what to expect. They use the drumsticks and beat the bucket as a drum, and the pool noodle to catch and work on hand-eye coordination; they use scarves to practice catching and the tennis ball to practice bouncing on the ground and try to land in the bucket. It’s a cool way to use super simple things and learn good motor skills. One day they’ll ball up a piece of paper and practice throwing, another day they’ll practice balancing in PE with yoga poses. Their teachers create innovative things to do at home with things they already have.”

Niki Burnham,

former elementary school teacher and stay-at-home mother to kindergarten students

The new normal

At San Antonio Independent School District’s Schenck Elementary School, teachers are supplied with sanitizing sprays, personal protection equipment and face shields for students who need them.

“Still, I was nervous to come back,” said Danielle Elizondo, a kindergarten teacher at Schenck. “My mother, who’s also a teacher in SAISD, has underlying health conditions. I worried I might spread COVID to her or my family. The district and our superintendent have made this process manageable for us.”

Only six of her 25 students have returned for in-person instruction, the others are remote. The district wanted to bring back more in early October, but a coronavirus surge squelched those plans.

For the pupils who do return, kindergarten is a very different place. Gone from Elizondo’s classroom is the colorful clutter and carpeting, now replaced by taped X’s on the floor alerting pupils to stay apart. Students share no materials; instead, each has a personal supply bin. A plastic divider surrounds every table.

“They’re 5 years old, and they want to know when (the virus) will be gone,” she said. “Still, the kids are resilient. They’re really making me proud, reminding each other and working together to wash their hands, keep at a distance. This is the new normal at school. We’re just trying to figure out different ways to keep the kids safe.”

What comes next

There’s no end in sight for the pandemic. In fact, a Texas Education Agency recent public-health notice stated, “there will almost certainly be situations that necessitate temporary school closure due to positive COVID-19 cases in schools.”

The warning urges parents, teachers and administrators to continue enforcing strict health and safety actions to mitigate and prevent the spread, but those recommendations could change in the months ahead.

“It’s hard for the (Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School) district to anticipate what’s going to happen next, but we’ve worked hard to create a plan for any event,” Dylla said. “My hope is that we can keep the kids on campus here and keep remote learning available for others through the end of the year.”

Dylla realizes San Antonio-area teachers must be flexible if a coronavirus spike forces another round of closings. She believes the district and schools are prepared, and students have everything they need to succeed remotely.

“Still, they tell us to take our laptops home with us every day just in case that happens,” she added.

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