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Education

How North East, San Antonio ISD Plan To Gradually Reopen Schools

Bilingual guide Oliver Ramirez reads a book at Rodriguez Montessori Elementary to students learning remotely on the first day of SAISD's 2020-2021 school year.
Provided | San Antonio ISD
Bilingual guide Oliver Ramirez reads a book at Rodriguez Montessori Elementary to students learning remotely on the first day of SAISD's 2020-2021 school year.

North East and San Antonio Independent School Districts have announced separate plans to bring students back to campus in stages to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Both school districts started the 2020-2021 school year remotely Monday, but they plan to gradually reopen schools in the coming weeks.The first stage of North East ISD’s return is slated to begin on Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.

San Antonio ISD plans to delay starting its return to the classroom until the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District moves its school reopening indicator from the high-risk red zone to the yellow zone, which represents a moderate risk.

More to the story: How San Antonio Metro Health is measuring school reopening readiness

Fort Sam Houston and Northside ISD are also planning phased-in returns to the classroom.

North East ISD

North East ISD has created a five-step phase-in plan for reopening schools.
Credit Provided | North East ISD
North East ISD has created a five-step phase-in plan for reopening schools.

North East ISD’s reopening plan has five phases, with up to five students allowed in the classroom during phase one, and five additional students added to the classroom during each new phase.

Each phase will last at least two weeks, and the district will only move on to the next stage if local health conditions remain stable and North East schools aren’t required to close or quarantine.

“I am acutely aware of the strain that school closures have put on our parents, students and staff,” North East ISD Superintendent Sean Maika told trustees Thursday while presenting the plan to the board. “We know that many families are anxious for a return to in-person learning.  And I want to assure you that I believe schools should open.”

However, Maika warned that schools won’t be able to stay open if parents, students and staff don’t stay diligent.

“If some in our community are not following the recommendations of experts, then we will all be impacted. I can open schools for our community, but keeping them open is everyone’s job,” Maika said, adding that he had seen troubling social media posts over the summer of community members in crowded places without masks.

Because building capacity, enrollment and interest in face-to-face instruction varies from school to school, North East administrators said how quickly students will be able to return to the classroom will depend on where the students go to school.

For instance, Colonial Hills Elementary only has 71 students signed up for in-person instruction, but Hidden Forest Elementary has requests from 420 students.

“It’s entirely possible… that when our smaller schools start with the groups of five they may have already met all of their in-person requests,” Associate Superintendent Donna Newman said, while noting schools with higher enrollment and interest levels will take more phases to accommodate.

During the first two phases of the reopening, students will participate in virtual learning even if they are in the classroom. Once enough students have returned to separate in-person and virtual classrooms, the district will return to a more regular format for face-to-face instruction.

“It is very difficult for a teacher to have a classroom that’s virtual and be monitoring those kids as well as trying to teach the kids that are there in the room,” Newman said, adding that breaks are built into the schedule for elementary students to have recess and other breaks from computer screens.

Secondary students will use headphones to go through their virtual lessons in their homerooms during the first two phases.

“We anticipate that by the time we are in phase 3 most of our schools will be able to adjust to that original plan they had created of teachers teaching either in-person only or virtual only, but we have to remember that parents do have the option to change their mind about in person or virtual, so these numbers are flexible and we have to remain flexible,” Newman said. “We will try to assign (students who return to in-person instruction) to the teacher of record they had during the at-home virtual time, but that may not always be possible.”

Newman said students who have special education accommodations or other needs that can’t be met during distance learning will be given first priority to return to the classroom, followed by students whose parents say child care issues are preventing them from working. The remaining seats will be selected using a lottery.

San Antonio ISD

San Antonio ISD has created a four step reopening plan.
Credit Provided | San Antonio ISD
San Antonio ISD has created a four step reopening plan.

San Antonio ISD’s reopening plan has three stages and coincides with San Antonio Metro Health’s school reopening indicator. Parents will be given a week’s notice before the district moves to a new stage.

During a virtual town hall on Aug. 10, SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said the district will stay remote at least until Labor Day and wait until the reopening indicator is in the yellow zone to start any in-person learning.

“(We know that) your children miss school, they miss socializing with their friends, connecting with their teachers, and those are very important aspects of education that go beyond the academics. And so we want to be able to do that, but we want to be able to do that in a safe way,” Martinez said.

San Antonio Metro Health is using three metrics to calculate its school reopening indicator: positivity rate, doubling time, and the trend in the daily number of cases. When those metrics are high, the indicator is red and Metro Health recommends schools remain closed.

SAISD has set benchmarks for all three metrics, and Martinez said all three benchmarks would need to be met before the district moved to the next phase of reopening.

“Until those three metrics change, we’re going to stay in red. And in red, our schools will be open, we’ll be providing services for our special needs children — for example therapeutic services, testing services,” Martinez said. “It will be in a very controlled environment with PPE and many safety guidelines, but we will not be providing instruction in person.”

SAISD’s draft reopening plan calls for a positivity rate of 10% or less, a doubling time of 13 days or more and a flattening in the number of new cases for at least 14 days before moving into the yellow stage.

After giving parents at least a week’s notice that the district is moving into the yellow stage, up to 25% of students will be able to receive face-to-face instruction. Martinez said that equals about five students per class in Pre-K through 4th grade and six or seven students per class in 5th through 12th grade.

While in the red zone, Martinez said that teachers will start identifying students who are struggling during remote learning and schools will prioritize those students’ return once the school reopening indicator turns yellow.

“We will only do that if parents consent,” Martinez said. “In other words, if our parents don’t feel that it is safe to bring in their children, you will have that option to stay remote for the first nine weeks, the first semester, or even all year long.”

Once the school reopening indicator moves to the green zone, Martinez said SAISD will be able to accommodate everyone who wants to send their children to school for in-person instruction. The district is capping the green zone at 50% of enrollment, which will leave enough space for social distancing.

“So many of our parents want to start remote, and I’m just so grateful to you, because by having such a high percentage of families that want to stay remote for at least the first nine weeks, that allows us as a school district to phase in the children slowly,” Martinez said.

Unless the district applies for a waiver, the Texas Education Agency is requiring districts to offer in-person instruction to all families that want it by the ninth week of school.

Martinez said he expects the green level, with 50% of students in person, to be “the new normal” for the rest of the first semester.

Once San Antonio reaches a very low number of cases, SAISD plans to work with Metro Health to determine a threshold to enter a blue zone, which will trigger a phased-in return of the remaining students.

“Every parent who wants their child to stay remote all year long — you will have that option, and we commit to you that you’ll have a high-quality curriculum, a high-quality instruction with a lot of support,” Martinez said. “For those families that your children can’t wait to come to school, I want that to happen, but I want it to happen in a very safe way and I want it to be gradual.”

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter at @cmpcamille.

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