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A Growing Number Of Rural Districts Outside San Antonio Set Dates To End Remote Learning

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Texas Public Radio

At least two rural school districts outside San Antonio have decided to end their remote learning option and require students to return to the classroom.

Lower population density has helped spare their communities from the eyebrow-raising case count of many urban areas, but rural South Texas counties have seen their share of COVID-19, including cases in schools. At least two districts have kept students home from school to give them time to complete contract tracing. One of the district’s was planning on ending canceling remote learning, but delayed setting a date after a surge in coronavirus cases.

Uvalde CISD

Anthon Elementary in Uvalde County, 80 miles west of San Antonio,temporarily halted in-person learning Tuesday because several staff members are in quarantine after coming into close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We were just going to be so thin with staff members … that it was just going to be much more effective and efficient for us to go into the virtual setting,” said Hal Harrell, superintendent of Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District.

Anthon Elementary currently has three active cases of people who tested positive for the virus, but Harrell said several staff members who haven’t tested positive are also under quarantine because they came into close contact with someone who did.

Coronavirus cases spiked in Uvalde after county officials lifted the mask mandate in October.The mandate went back into effect on Monday after the county went above the state’s threshold of 30 active cases. But the end to the mandate didn’t change the requirement at Anthon Elementary.

“I decided to keep masks as a requirement on campuses just as an abundance of caution,” said Harrell. “I felt like everything that we were doing was helping to keep it down in schools.”

After four days of remote learning, students who have chosen face-to-face instruction will be allowed to return to Anthon Elementary on Nov. 16.

Just under 70% of Uvalde CISD’s 4,065 students chose in-person instruction for the second grading period, up from almost 60% during the first quarter.

Natalia ISD

Trustees for Natalia Independent School District in Medina County, voted Oct. 12 to require students to return to face-to-face instruction on Oct. 19 if they were struggling with remote learning. However, they reversed course shortly afterwards due to a surge in coronavirus cases.

Natalia closed its high school and returned to remote learning Oct. 15-16 to give the district time to conduct contact tracing and notify students and staff members who needed to go into quarantine.

According to district officials, Natalia had 17 positive coronavirus cases in October — 16 after the board voted to end remote learning Oct. 12.

The small district of about 1,000 students originally planned to end remote learning for all students Nov. 2, but decided to hold off when its positive case count rose.

Interim Superintendent Lana Collavo said in an email Thursday that Natalia has not yet made a decision about when it will cancel remote instruction, although it was considering Jan. 4.

Hondo ISD

Hondo ISD, Natalia’s neighbor in Medina County, ended its remote learning program on Monday, three weeks after the districtannounced it would be requiring all of its 1,800 students to return to the classroom.

Superintendent A’Lann Truelock said a limited amount of virtual instruction is ongoing for 88 students. To learn virtually, students had to request that an exemption be made and they were required to have someone in the household at increased risk for complications caused by COVID-19.

“In most of the cases people were kind of happy to get back to school,” Truelock said. “The teachers are managing quite well.”

Truelock said some families opted to homeschool their children rather than have them return to the classroom, but she didn’t know how many yet because some families were still completing the paperwork.

Around 44% of Hondo’s students were enrolled in remote learning as of Sept. 28, but as the end of the first grading period neared, Truelock said it became clear that something needed to change.

“A great number of our remote learners on all campuses were having attendance problems as well as failure issues, and we couldn’t see that continuing,” Truelock said. “I understand that these are hard times and COVID is a very real situation, but having kids face to face with their teachers, especially in those younger grades — there’s no substitute for it.”

According to Truelock, almost 80% of middle school students in remote learning were failing at least one class.

“We just felt like we needed to shut it down in a hurry,” Truelock said. “We couldn’t try to tweak that with numbers like that.”

Medina County’s coronavirus case count has gone up since Hondo ISD decided to end remote learning, but Truelock said the district has so far avoided having more than one or two cases at a time on a campus.

“The last thing we want to do is to sacrifice our students, our community’s health. We would never consider doing that at all,” Truelock said. “We will be looking closely at infection rates and where that’s coming from (in case Hondo needs to) close a campus or a grade” and temporarily return to remote learning.

La Vernia ISD

Trustees for La Vernia ISD, 30 miles East of San Antonio, voted Monday to follow Hondo ISD’s lead, approving an end to the district’s remote learning program after the Thanksgiving break.

During a presentation to the board, La Vernia Superintendent Hensley Cone said the district had “reached a tipping point,” with teachers struggling to teach both in-person and remote learners.

“Our teachers will go to the nth degree to help our kids be successful, but they can only do as much as they can do when we put them in an overload mode like they’re in at this particular time,” Cone said.

“Bexar County’s a lot different than Wilson County, so we have to keep that in mind. Wilson County has consistently reported extremely low COVID-19 cases,” Cone added.

Cone said La Vernia will close a school and temporarily return to remote instruction if it has too many positive coronavirus cases to keep up with contact tracing.

As of Nov.1, the district had reported three positive cases of COVID-19 since the start of the school year.

According to district officials, almost 90% of La Vernia’s students are already enrolled in face-to-face instruction.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.