With much still unknown about what the coronavirus outbreak will look like in the coming months, the Northside Independent School District has developed a flexible framework to reopen its more than 100 campuses this fall.
Despite wanting to bring as many students as possible back into the classroom, a survey of parents and staff during the first week of June made it clear to Northside administrators that some form of online learning will need to remain in place.
According to the survey, one out of four Northside parents aren’t comfortable with sending their children back to school in fall.
Initially, almost half of the 14,454 parents surveyed said they weren’t comfortable with the idea, but that number dropped to 27% after they were informed of Northside’s plans to keep students safe.
More than 20% of the nearly 6,400 teachers, administrators and staff surveyed also told Northside they weren’t comfortable returning to their school buildings.
“What we’re trying to develop is a system that encourages students to come back to our buildings,” Northside Superintendent Brian Woods told the district’s board of trustees Tuesday evening.
“But we also recognize — and I think the survey data speaks to it pretty well — that distance learning is going to be the choice, at least for some period of time, for some families. And we will need to stand up really robust distance learning, to include the technology that supports that, to offer those families.”
Board member Gerald Lopez said the survey data matches what he’s hearing from his constituents.
“There’s a trust factor that other people are going to do the same thing. They’re (also) going to practice social distancing; they’re (also) going to wear a mask,” Lopez said. “Because we know that kids will be kids, so they’re struggling with that. And they’re struggling with that even more so at an elementary level.”
The choice to offer a completely virtual option is further complicated by the fact that the district doesn’t know whether or not it will receive state funding for students who aren’t physically in classrooms.
A spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency said he “anticipates holistic guidance” on attendance, funding and public safety will be released early next week.
Northside’s tentative fall plans divide students into four groups based on their level of need, with top priority given to special education students in self-contained settings, followed by immigrant and refugee students, students who are homeless or in foster care, and students who are academically at-risk.
Children of Northside employees and essential workers would also be given consideration, alongside students in middle school and high school who are getting industry certifications and participating in extracurricular activities.
At the elementary level, only 25% of students would come to school when public health concerns are high to help maintain the highest levels of social distancing and limit the possibility of exposure.
As concerns decline, the second and third group of students would gradually start attending on alternating days, with the fourth group continuing distance learning until it’s deemed safe for everyone to return.
Middle schools and high schools would follow a similar format, with some groups either attending on alternating days or waiting until it was safe for the entire group to attend every day.
Whatever the final plan ends up being, Woods said it was clear that a more rigorous distance learning system capable of measuring student progress would be needed.
“We know that what we did in mid-March was just get it out there, and we know the bar is going to have to raise,” Woods said. “And we’ve got to be nimble enough that if a classroom had to be closed for whatever period of time that we could transition those students from in-person to distant overnight and that it would be seamless for the kids and that learning would not be lost.”
Pointing out that COVID-19 cases have risen since Northside surveyed parents and staff, trustees asked the superintendent how it would decide to close schools or even districts.
“I’m not sure that I have confidence that the state is actually going to pull back in time,” Trustee Karen Freeman said. “Are you all thinking about what that scenario might look like? Just because we can be open doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.”
Woods said that he was in conversations with other superintendents in the region about making joint decisions, as they did in the spring, but they were a long way off from setting a specific threshold that would trigger closures.
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