As the Rio Grande Valley became a COVID-19 hotspot, the region’s schools developed distance learning plans so the community could remain safe while continuing to learn and educate.
The situation is constantly changing and just how long schooling will be remote remains unknown, but in the meantime, there are ways to help ensure effective learning for your child as a parent or guardian.
Donna ISD Superintendent Dr. Hafedh Azaiez said as soon as the threat of COVID-19 hit the United States, superintendents across the region and county officials began to meet to discuss whether to continue school as usual.
“We thought for the interest of everyone, in order to help decrease the number of cases and hospitalizations, it would be a good idea to keep students at home safe and provide distance learning so we can curb the trend,” he said.
To discover what barriers the close to 15,000 students have in their homes, Donna ISD began surveying the families and discovered more than 50 percent of households do not have internet access. So they came up with a plan to install 12 Wi-Fi towers near campuses to provide free internet to the students.
In addition, every student and teacher received personal devices. Students K-5 through second grade received iPads. Third- to 12-graders received Chromebooks, and teachers got laptops.
“If we can provide one-to-one devices and Wi-Fi connection, I think our students will be in very good shape,” Azaiez said. “The reason we were able to make this work is through looking at ways to save and being creative with funding.
“We wanted to fix that technology barrier divide so students have equal access.”
These two projects cost the district more than $9 million and were made possible by putting other projects, such as the beautification of campuses, on hold.
Azaiez said this investment into technology is helping push the district ahead and will ensure students do not fall behind.
“We’re going to make the online school experience feel as much as possible as if it’s in person,” Azaiez said. “We want to be sure our teachers are teaching students directly and that everyone is interacting with each other.”
Teachers are also receiving new training to become adept at teaching using online platforms, including Google Classroom.
The goal, he said, is to keep as much normalcy as the circumstances allow. Parents and guardians can aid this mission by following a schedule and creating a daily routine.
To keep their mind focused on learning, he encourages designating a spot in the house away from the television and other distractions where the students can perform their classwork and connect with their teachers and peers.
“We’re all in this together for a common cause, which is to make sure students continue to advance academically,” he said. “And with this schedule, we want to provide social-emotional balance and provide time for students to interact with each other remotely as much as possible.”
And while sports and other UIL meets will not be possible, certain electives, including physical education and technical courses, will be offered. Teachers continue to come up with ideas on how students can engage with one another.
Another change students can expect is a less traditional schedule. In late July, schools were still hashing out the details in preparation for the upcoming fall semester, but Azaiez said a standard eight-hour schedule would likely not be the case.
He encourages parents to reach out to the school for support when they need it and says students struggling in their courses will also be supported through virtual small-group tutoring with their teachers.
“We know in-person education is the best option, but the safety of our students and staff comes first and foremost,” he said. “Unfortunately, we cannot open schools yet, but we will continue working to motivate and support the campus community remotely as much as possible.”
The Donna ISD website contains more resources for parents (which is applicable for families in other districts) to best support their children.
In addition to setting routines for their families, the district encourages parents to not forget to take care of themselves, engage in fun, creative activities together, look for things to celebrate each day, and check in and take time to practice mindful breathing together.