With the start of the school year fast approaching, local school districts are beginning to release plans for in-person and virtual fall classes. It’s time needed for parents to make choices about their children’s education in 2020-2021.
Although much remains uncertain about the school year, clearer details are emerging about what school will look like when it returns — though school district leaders still aren’t sure what will change throughout the year.
Several districts already have released plans for the 2020-2021 school year, with the option for parents to choose between in-person and virtual learning.
Galveston Independent School District has said it will release its plan Thursday. Hitchcock Independent School District will have a board meeting Tuesday to make final changes.
Of the districts that have released plans, efforts to keep students socially distanced look largely similar. Many districts are requiring health screenings upon entry and limiting visitors. Seating in classrooms will be spaced out as much as possible, masks will be required and lunches will either be staggered or grab-and-go.
Clear Creek and Dickinson districts are planning for shifts to all-virtual learning if more than 10 percent of the student and staff population is suspected of having COVID-19, according to reopen plans. Friendswood and Santa Fe have a similar plan if cases rise.
Texas City is aiming for a 15:1 student-to-teacher ratio to keep class sizes small.
The Texas Education Agency announced in early July that Texas school districts must give parents an option: return children to in-person classes in the fall or allow them to stay at home and continue classes through online virtual learning.
Schools across Texas closed in March as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.
In Galveston, the district already had a run at practicing social distancing in the classroom with the summer reading-focused LitCamp.
It’s amazing how well students have adapted to distancing rules, said Elizabeth Bennett, district coordinator of academic programs and student outcomes. Bennett oversees LitCamp, which teaches rising third-graders.
The camp, which normally attracts 150 students, taught 16 in-person students and 25 virtual students this summer, Bennett said.
Instead of having guest readers, field trips and huge group activities, the camp did all of that virtually, Bennett said.
“It’s as though they’re getting the outside coming in through technology,” she said.
Teachers were nervous about making sure students wore masks and kept their distance from each other, but the children have done a good job, Bennett said.
“They came in like champs,” Bennett said. “They knew that they had to wear the masks. They knew about social distancing already.”
The teachers made small seating areas with disposable paper mats next to each students’ desk to mark off spacing, so the children can get out of their seats while remaining socially distanced, Bennett said.
Last spring, schools closed in a flurry as concerns about the coronavirus swept through the region, leaving many students without proper access to school material and significant latitude on attendance.
That will be different this time, said Tammy Dowdy, spokeswoman for the Dickinson Independent School District, adding that virtual students will have the same grading criteria as in-person students will.
“They’ll be required to be actively engaged in the work every day,” Dowdy said.
Clear Creek, Galveston, Texas City and Friendswood independent school districts also offer online options.
The districts offer a blend of synchronous instruction — when the teacher is giving a lesson live — and asynchronous instruction — when the student is working on assignments on his or her own time.
Friendswood is scheduling specific days of the week for synchronous and asynchronous learning for students in sixth through 12th grades and specific hours for elementary students, according to its reopening plan.
In Santa Fe, secondary students will view their core classes live through a webcam in the teachers’ classes and take their electives asynchronously, according to its reopening plan. Some classes, such as welding, may require some in-person components, according to the plan.
Galveston Independent School District this week received a $1.9 million grant from the Moody Foundation to provide 2,481 Chromebooks for students, 350 student laptops, 250 Chromebooks for teachers and 1,200 hotspots for students who don’t have access to the internet.
That, along with what the school district already had, should meet the need, school district spokesman Billy Rudolph said.
“This is a huge deal,” Rudolph said.
Other districts are working toward that goal too.
Clear Creek Independent School District is a one-to-one district, meaning each student has access to a computer, spokeswoman Elaina Polsen said. The district is sending out a survey to identify any students that won’t have internet access, she said.
Texas City Independent School District is spending $1.1 million to buy more laptops for students, spokeswoman Melissa Tortorici said. That should mean 100 percent of the district’s students will have access to a device at home, according to the district.
The district also is planning to install internet access points in the high school parking lots for families that don’t have access to internet at home, Tortorici said.
Friendswood also is handing out Chromebooks and hotspots to students who need them, spokeswoman Dayna Owen said.
Santa Fe students will also have an opportunity to get Chromebooks and hotspots, according to the reopening plan.
And although Dickinson isn’t a one-to-one district, it’s sending out a survey to find out which students need technology, Dowdy said.
Not all Galveston County students will have the option of returning to the classroom.
Hitchcock Independent School District will reopen Aug. 17 with only virtual learning, Superintendent Travis Edwards said.
“We certainly want them in school,” Edwards said, adding however that the district wants to make sure it’s safe for students to be there.
The Texas Education Agency right now allows district up to three weeks to transition from virtual to in-person classes, but that period could be extended, Edwards said.
The district expects it will be able to issue Chromebooks to all students who don’t have access to a computer and plans to work with those families to provide hot spots or find low-cost internet plans, he said.
The Hitchcock school board is planning on finalizing its return plans during a Tuesday meeting, Edwards said.