Educational Transformation

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In March 2020, students and school employees went on Spring Break expecting the standard weeklong recharge. Instead, school districts were thrust into the middle of possibly the greatest technological challenge of the 21st century.

Gonzalo Salazar, Ed. D., superintendent of Los Fresnos CISD, explained that when health directives demanded in-person instruction change to virtual learning, no sector of education was immune to change. He pointed toward instructors and technology personnel who were called into action during a uniquely busy summer.

“Teachers have done a remarkable job — the undertaking has been huge,” Salazar said. “Going to remote instruction and doing it properly requires a lot of training. Our teachers gave up a lot of time during their summer to immerse themselves in Zoom and Google Classroom.”

As parents probably already know, the learning space is completely different this year. The comfort of home has its pros and cons and not everyone learns in the same manner.

“Classroom management was going to be different,” Salazar said. “Some kids are going to be under the covers, others are sitting in a seat, so teachers are developing new skills on how to manage all the things that occur with remote instruction.”

Transitioning to remote instruction was a stressful but necessary move to keep education high quality while also mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Constant updates and new information made planning a fluid situation.

“We’d have a plan made by the morning and have to create a new plan by lunchtime with how quickly things were moving,” Salazar said. “It takes a lot of careful planning. Every aspect of education has had to be reinvented so we’ve been juggling a whole lot.”

Salazar said the school utilized surveys to gauge the needs of parents and students. Some parents expressed the need to offer in-person classes because of work schedules, while other parents said they wouldn’t send their students back under any circumstances until a vaccine.

At the same time, even students in the same household don’t always learn the same. Some students thrive with independence. Others are hurting without being in person in class.

“Education is worth fighting for. These futures are worth fighting for,” Salazar said, getting choked up when talking about special needs.

These students face multiple concerns including the possibility of regression being away from school and the challenge of enforcing mask wearing and social distancing.

At this time, most districts are offering in-person class, but most students continue to learn from home.

Technology has seen a huge overhaul with many families living in colonias and low-income areas not just in Los Fresnos, but Valleywide.

In Hidalgo County, municipalities and school districts teamed up to provide internet and hardware. Donna ISD installed WiFi networks. Districts like PSJA and La Joya also used solutions like “rolling WiFi” on buses.

McAllen ISD Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez spoke at Roosevelt Elementary about the project to bring internet connectivity to South McAllen. McAllen installed 490 WiFi units and received 5,500 fully funded WiFi hotspots to families still in need of connection.

“All of our school board works very tightly with the City of Mcallen and the county and when you have that kind of synergy it creates this dynamic where you have initiatives like this,” Gonzalez said. “So now you have children in this neighborhood and across the city who are going to have an opportunity to connect to the rest of the world.”

Dr. Art Cavazos, superintendent of Harlingen CISD, also pointed to his instructors right away as doing the most important work.

“Without a doubt, the teachers in the classroom have done the heavy lifting,” Cavazos said. “When public school systems are designed as a face-to-face format and dealing with people, now having to engage in an online platform, that’s a big leap. Our theme this year is to ‘engage the heart.’”

His message to his employees was to do everything in their power to not let the disruptions of this year dash the hopes and dreams of their students.

“I move this organization to look at the opportunity,” Cavazos said. “What other time have we had an opportunity to close the digital divide that we’ve known has existed not only at the student, but at the parents and at the staff level? We are living during a time, during navigating a crisis, when we may very likely be redefining how we do teaching and learning moving forward.”

Cavazos echoed something he has been hearing and thinking on during the COVID crisis.

“In the rush back to normal, let’s use this time to think about what parts of ‘normal’ are worth rushing back to,” he said.

Cassandra Guzman is an eighth-grade social studies teacher. Her district, PSJA, has offered mental health services to help staff and students cope during a time of so much loss and pain.

“Not only have we evolved technologically but emotionally,” Guzman said. “There are countless numbers of staff members who know of someone who has either suffered from this virus physically, emotionally, or economically. It’s a tough time not only for us, the educators, but for the students and their families as well. I myself have grown more emotional in realizing the troubles my students and fellow staff members might be facing.”

Guzman feels most of her colleagues would prefer to stay away from the classroom because the risk is still so high.

The fight against COVID isn’t over yet. As of October, we are still trying to mitigate the spread of the virus. There still isn’t an approved vaccine and once that is available, a large percentage of the population will need the shot before the spread stops.

School administrators are doing their part to keep community education and health at the forefront.

What has your distance learning experience been like since the start of the pandemic? #JoinTheConversation at facebook.com/rgvisionmagazine.