LEAGUE CITY

Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that starting June 5 school districts could no longer mandate masks for students and staff ended a debate among some about whether to require face coverings during the next academic year.

But much else about the school year — including social distancing requirements and online learning programs — remains in limbo.

Already clear, however, is most districts are trying to get as near to pre-pandemic normal as possible after more than a year of turbulence and changing guidance.

In-person learning ended abruptly in March 2020 as concerns about the coronavirus swept through the region. When school opened again in August, it looked different with masking and distancing.

This school year has been marked by change, with students shifting between virtual and in-person learning. Students and staff also have had to quarantine on a moment’s notice throughout the year if they came in close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus — at times sending entire classes home to learn virtually.

Abbott’s order Tuesday prohibited governmental entities from issuing masking mandates. School districts can leave their mandates in place until June 4, at which point most districts will be finished with the regular academic year.

But the Texas Education Agency has yet to issue guidance specific to the 2021 to 2022 academic year.

The agency still is working with state leadership on the best options for students, according to a statement.

‘JUST NOT PRACTICAL’

Many local districts already are discussing scaling back or doing away with social distancing.

For Clear Creek Independent School District, keeping students apart to prevent the spread of the virus has been the biggest challenge, spokeswoman Elaina Polsen said.

Only about 20 percent of Clear Creek’s roughly 40,000 students are still online, she said. Finding room to separate the other 80 percent had been difficult, she said.

That’s been Hitchcock Independent School District’s challenge, too, Superintendent Travis Edwards said.

“The idea of having people 6 feet apart throughout the day, that’s just not practical in a classroom of 20 kids,” Edwards said.

The district will continue to separate students where possible, he said.

Other districts still will try to provide some distancing.

Galveston Independent School District likely will still attempt distancing and place dividers between students, said Dyann Polzin, chief human capital management and student services officer.

VIRTUAL OPTIONS

Whether districts will continue offering virtual schooling is a mixed bag in the county.

Dickinson Independent School District won’t have virtual school, spokeswoman Tammy Dowdy said. Hitchcock won’t either, Edwards said.

Clear Creek plans to have a virtual option, if the state allows, although it will change the structure of the program, Polsen said.

“This year we had a lot of hybrid where students were basically beaming into a classroom,” Polsen said. “That has not been the best educational outcome for students.”

Many districts have yet to decide.

If Galveston offers virtual instruction, it also will require students to engage more, Polzin said.

Texas City and Santa Fe school districts are gathering input from parents before announcing virtual options.

Cases of COVID in Galveston County have been falling. In the past seven days, the Galveston County Health District has reported an average of 23.7 new cases daily. That’s a far cry from all-time high seven-day averages of 264.3 cases daily in January or 245.1 cases daily in early July, according to the health district.

And the vast majority of Galveston County students are at school in-person.

But some students still are nervous about returning to class.

Sophomore Nicholas Norman’s parents have been cautious about staying safe from the coronavirus, he said. He isn’t sure whether he wants to return to his Dickinson school in the fall.

“COVID is still active,” Norman said. “It’s going to take a really long time before COVID simmers down.”

Norman has been staying virtual for the school year for his parents’ safety, he said.

Galveston sophomore Ayanna Hollins also has been taking online school this year.

Hollins parents have encouraged her to continue virtual learning for safety reasons, she said.

SANITIZING TO STAY

What districts will keep next year is the enhanced sanitizing practices.

Hitchcock wants to remove its water fountains and install bottle-filling stations to reduce the spread of all viruses, Edwards said.

Districts have upped their game in communicating with parents by live-streaming updates and making information readily available online, Polsen of Clear Creek said.

Districts still are waiting for state guidance on next year’s practices about when to quarantine students and how far to distance.

But most are ready to get back to a more stable school year.

“We’re hoping to go back to as much of normal as possible,” Edwards said.

Keri Heath: 409-683-5241; keri.heath@galvnews.com or on Twitter @HeathKeri.

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