x

Hope, fear and hula hoops: How four Texas schools are preparing to bring students back into classrooms

1 month 2 weeks 1 day ago Thursday, August 13 2020 Aug 13, 2020 August 13, 2020 5:44 AM August 13, 2020 in News - Local
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
By: by Allie Goulding and Stacy Fernández
Early College coordinator Byllye Benavides measures a plastic partition on a desk at Premont Ernest H. Singleton Early College Academy on Aug. 4 in Premont. The school is hand-making many of its safety precautions, such as the plastic partitions. (Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune.)

Across Texas, teachers and staff are readying the classrooms, hallways and cafeterias that will become the next front lines in the battle with the coronavirus pandemic.

While much teaching will continue online, most of the state's more than 1,000 school districts want to bring at least some students back to campuses.

It’s a tense moment, a fraught experiment to see whether students and educators can return to campus — and a semblance of a normal school year — without triggering further spread of the coronavirus and debilitating weakened communities.

Educators are aware of the risks, knowing it is possible colleagues and students could become infected, even die. But they also believe there is value in getting kids back into schools. With enough masks, plexiglass shields, hand sanitizer and other precautions they are hopeful of keeping their students, themselves and their communities safe.

Most are turning to guidelines set by the Texas Education Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, moving desks, installing dividers and putting up to signs to remind students — and each other — to keep a safe distance.

It's taking some creative problem-solving.

Here is how some Texas schools are getting ready for reopening.

A desk is distanced six feet apart from other desks at Premont Ernest H. Singleton Early College Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 in Premont. When the school reopened in June, students held hula hoops around themselves in line to maintain a socially safe distance from each other.
Hula hoops are placed at the entrance of a classroom at Premont Ernest H. Singleton Early College Academy. When the school reopened in June, students held hula hoops around themselves in line to maintain social distancing. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

Hula hoops and tape

In a normal school year, the Premont Ernest H. Singleton Early College Academy in Premont ISD would have about 360 students. This year the South Texas school will start virtual learning in late August. It hopes to begin bringing students back to campus in mid-September, though special education students might return earlier.

When the school reopened briefly last June, Superintendent Steve VanMatre hit on the notion of having rambunctious elementary schoolers wear hula hoops in hallways to keep away from each other.

He was afraid kids would end up fighting with the colored rings. But the young students became adamant that no one come near their personal circle.

Plastic partitions are set up on a desk at Premont Ernest H. Singleton Early College Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 in Premont.
Plastic partitions are set up on a desk at Premont Ernest H. Singleton Early College Academy. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Every other cubbie is used at Premont Ernest H. Singleton Early College Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 in Premont. Each cubbie feature a basket with individually packaged blocks, toys and supplies.
Signs reminding students of various safety precautions are posted on a bulletin board. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

It seemed to work, so the hula hoops will be back.

“These are kids and fun is still a big part of their day,” VanMatre said. “It’s turned into a really really effective strategy for social distancing.”

Given the relatively few cases in his county as of Tuesday there were 208 active cases and 16 deaths in a county of more than 40,000 people according to the Jim Wells County website and the fraction of students expected to come back in person VanMatre feels confident about the measures his schools implemented.

There will be portable sinks for handwashing, desks divided with plastic partitions and cubbies with individually bagged blocks and supplies for students.

Desks are seated six feet away from each other at Premont Collegiate High School on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 in Premont. Some desks, marked with yellow Xs, were used as placeholders to maintain a socially safe distance. A teacher put a blue table at the front of the room to remind students to maintain distance from the teacher.
Desks are seated six feet away from each other at Premont Collegiate High School on Aug. 4. A teacher placed a blue desk at the front of the room as a barrier between the teacher and their students. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Coaches paint a locker room at Premont Collegiate High School on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 in Premont. The locker room is being transformed into a meeting space for students and coaches.
Coaches paint a locker room at Premont Collegiate High School on Aug. 4 in Premont. The locker room is being transformed into a meeting space for students and coaches. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

A few teachers have taped off their desk and seating area to create a clear marker between their space and class space. Student temperatures will be checked twice, first when they get on the bus or arrive at school and again during lunch and arrival and dismissal times will be staggered, VanMatre said.

At the district's Premont Collegiate High School, about 230 students, 70% of its usual 330 students, are expected back on campus after the initial distance learning period, and more will be taught through live videos and webcams. Students won't always be eating in the cafeteria, and locker rooms have been turned into meeting spaces. Face masks and shields have been ordered for all students and faculty.

Until a robust coronavirus swab testing program with instant results is rolled out to schools, VanMatre’s thoughts of a worst-case scenario will linger.

"Absent of that I stay up a lot at night. Think about the worst-case scenario for a school superintendent. You have a student or a staff member that tests positive, gets sick and dies and you had made the decision to open schools and ask those people to come to work,” VanMatre said. “That's a terrible responsibility that could have terrible consequences regardless of how well your protocols are implemented.”

Journalism teacher PJ Cabrera removes chairs from the tables in his room at Judson High School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in Converse. Cabrera plans to remove two chairs from each table to maintain a social distance between his students.
Journalism teacher PJ Cabrera removes chairs from the tables in his room at Judson High School on Aug. 11 in Converse. Cabrera plans to remove two chairs from each table to maintain a social distance between his students. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

Internet crashes and disinfectant

Two weeks out from a return to virtual learning at Judson High School northeast of San Antonio, and the school's internet went down during an professional development day, so journalism teacher PJ Cabrera switched to rearranging and disinfecting his classroom.

Teachers have to be flexible. They’ve developed school shooting plans and whipped up emergency online learning curriculums when schools suddenly went online in the spring, he said.

Adapting is part of the job, but Cabrera is increasingly frustrated that guidance from top officials is constantly changing as he tries to figure out how to best educate students in an unprecedented situation.

"I think education, in general, is as prepared as we are going to get in a situation that is incredibly foreign for everybody and a situation that is constantly changing from the county level up to the top to the state level,” Cabrera said.

World history teacher Paul Chapa cleans out his classroom at Judson High School for the first time since spring break on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in Converse.
World history teacher Paul Chapa cleans out his classroom at Judson High School for the first time since spring break on Aug. 11 in Converse. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Freshman English teacher Sandra Grogan explains to another teacher how she plans to arrange her classroom at Judson High School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in Converse. Grogan said she researched the best ventilation practices for COVID-19 prevention before positioning her desk under an air vent and in front of a whiteboard.
Freshman English teacher Sandra Grogan explains to another teacher how she plans to arrange her classroom. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

About 25 minutes from downtown San Antonio, the high school serves more than 2,700 students. The school plans remote learning for the first two weeks of the school year, and hopes to bring students who meet specific criteria, like not having internet connectivity at home or being the child of a first responder, after that. By late September the option to return to campus will be open to all students.

Paul Chapa, a world history teacher recently cleaned up his classroom for the first time since spring break, and added a poster of Disney's Cinderella's castle behind his desk to use as a background for Zoom meetings with students.

Sandra Grogan, a freshman English teacher positioned her desk under an air vent with the fan blowing air away from her.

Receptionists work behind a plexiglass barrier in the front office, one of the only areas with plexiglass installed, at Judson High School Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in Converse.
Receptionists work behind a plexiglass barrier in the front office, one of the only areas with plexiglass installed, at Judson High School on Aug. 11 in Converse. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
The empty entry way of Judson High School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in Converse.
The empty entry way of Judson High School. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Partitions sit on a table in the library at Judson High School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in Converse. The librarian purchased the partitions with her own funds for $7.50 each. In the background, aisles of books are blocked off to control the flow of traffic through the library.
Partitions sit on a table in the library. The librarian purchased the partitions with her own funds for $7.50 each. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Lead biology teacher Natorre Cole works on a presentation about interactive notebooks for a district Zoom meeting at Judson High School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in Converse. In the foreground, Cole’s cleaning solution supplied by the district sits on her desk.
Lead biology teacher Natorre Cole works on a presentation about interactive notebooks for a district Zoom meeting. A bottle of cleaning solution supplied by the district sits on her desk. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

There are some plastic partitions and warning signs about social distancing in the main office, but Grogan said the only personal protection equipment the district has provided teachers is disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer and paper towels. The school hasn't implemented the same robust safety measures, such as social distancing signage, in hallways and common areas as other schools.

Along with getting up to speed on learning software, Cabrera, who runs the school’s newspaper and yearbook, is largely focused on how to keep extracurricular activities going. The newspaper will be able to adapt more seamlessly, but Cabrera isn’t sure how they’ll handle putting together a yearbook when there are no activities like pep rallies and homecoming to fill its pages.

For the most part, students aren’t excited to go to school for their core classes like English, math and science. What excites students is “the fun stuff” like band and yearbook club, Cabrera said.

"In order for us to have an enriched curriculum we still have to offer extracurriculars. We still have to get them engaged into school,” Cabrera said. “How that's going to happen is going to be very, very different, but we're going to try our best to do it.”

Principal Madeline Bueno shows how classroom learning materials are individually bagged in a classroom at Ott Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in San Antonio. The learning materials will be sanitized after each use, Bueno said.
Principal Madeline Bueno shows how classroom learning materials are individually bagged in a classroom at Ott Elementary School on Aug. 11 in San Antonio. The learning materials will be sanitized after each use. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

Toys aren't for sharing anymore

Teachers at San Antonio's Paul W. Ott Elementary are trying to figure out how to teach pre-kindergarteners basic concepts like sharing when it’s in everybody’s best interest to be a little territorial.

It used to be an everyday affair, but now students must stick to their own toys during socially distanced playtime, spaces meant for groups are limited to pairs and instead of community markers and crayons each student will be equipped with their own baggie of school supplies not to be shared, said Madeline Bueno, school principal.

“Those are the things we never thought we would have to experience, but that’s where we’re at right now,” Bueno said.

The visitor check-in station at Ott Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in San Antonio. Visitors are required to fill out a form online asking if they have experienced any COVID-19 symptoms recently and show the time-stamped form to the front office receptionists before entering the building.
The visitor check-in station at Ott Elementary School on Aug. 11 in San Antonio. Visitors are required to fill out a form online asking if they have experienced any COVID-19 symptoms recently and show the time-stamped form to the front desk receptionists before entering the building. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
The nurses desk with a plexiglass barrier at Ott Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in San Antonio. Northside ISD installed plexiglass barriers in several offices in the school.
The nurses desk with a plexiglass barrier. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Social distancing decals are posted on the floor in the cafeteria line at Ott Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in San Antonio. Northside ISD installed plexiglass barriers by the cash registers.
Social distancing decals are posted on the floor in the cafeteria line, while plexiglass barriers are installed at the cash registers. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Principal Madeline Bueno demonstrates how staff and visitors are required to scan a code and fill out a form before entering the building at Ott Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in San Antonio. The form asks if staff or visitors have experienced any COVID-19 symptoms recently.
Principal Madeline Bueno demonstrates how staff and visitors are required to scan a code and fill out a form before entering the building. The form asks if staff or visitors have experienced any COVID-19 symptoms recently. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

Teachers and students will pick up with virtual learning on Aug. 24, but Bueno said the Northside Independent School District has yet to announce when students can physically return to campus. Bueno expects it will likely be after Labor Day, but the date will be based on guidance from the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

Much of the school’s safety equipment and directives came from the health district. The school has installed plexiglass, posters with health guidances and social distancing stickers on the floors. Legos and other toys in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms are individually bagged and must be cleaned by the teacher with district-provided disinfectant after each use.

Bueno gave each teacher general instructions for how to set up their classroom, but the execution varied. One teacher zip-tied baskets to the bottom of students’ chairs so they have a place to store their backpacks germ-free.

“This will be my 23rd year setting up a classroom … and I could do it in my sleep until this year because I had to think about every single thing in my room,” said Carrie Gray, who teaches 5th graders.

Tables are spaced out in a classroom at Ott Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in San Antonio. The tables, which typically seat six to eight students, were arranged to seat four students and 16 total students in the classroom.
Baskets are tied to the bottom of the chairs for students to put their backpacks and supplies. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Desks are spaced out in a classroom at Ott Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in San Antonio. The arrows on the floor indicate the direction for students to walk to control the flow of traffic through the classroom.
Desks are spaced out in a classroom at Ott Elementary School. The arrows on the floor indicate the direction for students to walk to control the flow of traffic through the classroom. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
Desks are spaced out in a classroom at Ott Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in San Antonio.
A look inside a classroom, with desks spaced out, at Ott Elementary School. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

Anticipating how students will interact with space, teachers thought through desk placement, where to put workstations and decided if they’d open up their classroom library and if so, with what protocol. It took most teachers hours and days to get their classrooms set up as close to “right” as they could, Gray said.

Christina Escarcega, who teaches kindergartners, set up an interactive Bitmoji classroom that mirrors her real-life room. She’s hoping the cartoon background will put students, some who will be in a classroom for the first time in their lives, at ease.

"I want to be hopeful for the kids that they come in and they're comfortable and not scared,” Escarcega. “We're not sure of their experiences they had when they were at home in the summer. We don't know if families were sick, we don't know if their parents lost their job, so hope would be the number one, to give them hope.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/13/reopening-schools-texas/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

More News

Radar
7 Days