Virtual Progress

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The coronavirus pandemic has changed many aspects of normal life — from work, to shopping, to even taking a stroll in the park. But for many families throughout the Rio Grande Valley and the rest of Texas, education may be one of the greatest adjustments.

With news of the virus evolving quickly, school districts had little to no time to prepare for having to uproot students, teachers, and most of their staff from their schools as a precaution and go fully virtual.

Schools emptied as the virus began to spread through the United States and Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide order to keep all students at home during the pandemic, eventually deciding to close campuses for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

“Social distancing is our best tool in the fight against COVID-19, and the actions we have taken thus far have proven to be effective in limiting the spread of this virus,” Abbott said in a statement.

Initial closures came right before Spring Break, allowing some districts to use the down time to prepare for the different possibilities.

Dr. Jorge L.  Arredondo, superintendent at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district, said the district transitioned to a full closure since March 13, a day before Spring Break. But his staff had already begun meeting to talk about online classes and the curriculum necessary for the transition.

“As we started noticing that this was going to lead to closures, we started meeting as teams and seeing what resources we had and what type of technology we had available,” Arredondo said. “Once we noticed that it was much safer for our entire community, then of course we decided to close our schools.”

The PSJA ISD staff took advantage of the break to prepare to roll out a plan for students to continue their lessons online.

They began computer distributions starting with students in higher grades and those taking dual enrollment college courses, and moving down to lower grades. And even as they overestimated the number of students who may need a computer or a hotspot for internet connection, Arredondo said, the district began ordering more technology in case the demand was higher.

But the process is still ongoing, considering there are many aspects that must be addressed — from ensuring internet access, to providing printed materials for those who might struggle to connect.

“Now the next push is, how do we give instructional packages of enrichment activities to those students who don’t have access to printers or online platforms yet?” he said. “So now, as we are rolling out meals, we are going to have those available to students that may need them.”

At McAllen ISD, Superintendent Dr. J.A. Gonzalez said what helped them was already being what they call a “one-to-one district,” meaning every student has access to technology to take home. Students in pre-K through fifth grade have iPads, while sixth- through 12th-grade students have Google Chromebooks.

“We’ve been utilizing this instructional technology for many years now,” Gonzalez said. “A big part of it has been utilizing Google Classroom, this virtual environment where teachers put all of their assignments in and students submit their assignments and things of that sort.”

That part of the transition was facilitated by at least four years of practice, he said, but challenges remain, especially with every student needing and having different types of support now at home.

The New Teacher’s Aide

The role of parents has expanded to a sort of teacher’s aide, as they now play a key role in the virtual classroom by helping their children access online platforms, follow schedules, and complete assignments at home.

“We are fortunate that our parents have been working really hard,” Gonzalez said. “And our teachers have done a great job in making sure that regardless of whether a student has a lot of support or very little support at home — with parents who are very busy sometimes working two jobs — that we provide that support to our students.”

These districts have established support systems and help lines for parents to reach out to teachers online or by phone. Teachers and counselors have set up informational videos, Zoom meetings, and even Facebook Live sessions to interact with both the students and the parents — and answer any questions and concerns.

“It’s been a big team effort and I’m just so proud of every campus leader, principal, and especially our teachers for being able to adjust and do the best that we can in this new world and environment that we are in,” Gonzalez said.

Student Assessment 

Along with the statewide school closures came an announcement by Abbott of the cancellation of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, known as STAAR, for this school year.

The STAAR assessment is in turn used to determine the state’s A-through-F accountability ratings, which will also be waived this year with all districts labeled as “not rated: declared state of disaster.”

“While we continuously work to ensure our ‘A-F’ accountability system paints an accurate picture of school performance, these unprecedented circumstances have forced all of us to change and adapt,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement.

The news came as a relief, Arredondo said, as districts are carefully attempting to balance all the changes, the need for student’s continuous learning, and the need for parent’s support.

“One of the biggest reliefs to us is when the commissioner and the governor announced there was not going to be a STAAR test,” Arredondo said. “A lot of parents were concerned (asking), ‘Is my child going to have to do well on this test?’”

Not having to worry about preparing students and parents for the test allowed districts to prioritize safety while still rolling out learning and enrichment activities and communication strategies to get everyone adjusted.

“We were in a position to do very well on this year’s assessment, based on all the data we had,” Gonzalez said about McAllen ISD. “But once we moved into this virtual environment, it was some weight lifted off from us not having to worry about that as we maneuvered into this environment.”

The state has announced efforts to help school districts keep their students on track despite the lack of state assessments, including the creation of an Instructional Continuity Task Force. 

“We are working around the clock to ensure that our school districts have the instructional guidance they need so that students can successfully pursue their studies at home,” Commissioner Morath said in a statement. “Our Task Force is working to ensure all school systems have access to the resources they need to support instruction remotely, whether ‘low-tech’ or ‘high-tech.’”

At McAllen ISD communication has also been key to ensure that students are still able to move forward in their education, Gonzalez said. Teachers have shared new ideas and methods to utilize the technology tools that they had already been using, but now in a different way.

“A big part of it is having teachers that are very good at communicating with their students in this new environment,” Gonzalez said. “Just really leveraging the software that we have. We have all kinds of software per subject that students use on their devices that allow them to continue working on math and literacy and things of that sort.”

Moving Forward

If there is any silver lining at this point, it’s the caliber of creativity that has sprung up amid all these changes. Both Gonzalez and Arredondo said they’ve been impressed by the level of energy and innovation that teachers have shown as they are constantly looking for ways to engage and bring a sense of normalcy to their students.

“Our PE teachers are creating videos of all these very cool exercises to do at home. … We have teachers and principals reading books to students on Facebook and other platforms,” Arredondo said. “So it just started generating more innovative ways that maybe we knew were out there, but we had never been pushed to utilize them.”

While, at the time of publication, there is no firm end to regulations enacted because of this pandemic, district officials have had to plan around the changes while still trying to plan for what’s ahead once students, teachers, and state assessments return.

“We are definitely following our game plan as far as our curriculum, but we know we’ll have to loop back and cover some of those concepts again,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll just have to see if there are any gaps when we come back … so that’s yet to be seen.”

What approaches have you taken to adjust to life at home for your students? #JoinTheConversation at facebook.com/rgvisionmagazine.