Across El Paso, families have been transitioning back to school in a virtual format.

I have two sons in EPISD middle and high schools, and we are finishing our second week. So how’s it going?

The first few days were tough, riddled with confusion and technical issues. I warned the boys, but they were still surprised by the change in intensity from the spring. The fall semester includes regular bell schedules and videoconference classes that last the full period. For middle school, it’s about 50 minutes for each of the six or seven classes per day. For high school, it’s about four classes per day, an hour and half each.

Just like regular school there are only a few minutes between classes, easily chewed up trying to find the logins to the next class, or cuddling with the dog. The real time killer is asking mom a question. My answers are rarely brief.

It is a lot for everyone, but the increase in rigor is good. They need the challenge.

Logistics have been streamlined, and I see a lot more consistency across teachers with how they are organizing instructions, assignments and platforms used.

For EPISD, command central is Schoology, an online gateway to courses. Students login to a dashboard with school announcements, folders for each course and potentially access to more technology. There are all sorts of third-party tools depending on the class. This is also where students submit most assignments.

EPISD has added Schoology accounts for parents with access to their children’s interfaces. It is tremendously helpful, and the system emails us a weekly recap with what the child did or didn’t do. Sure enough the first week I caught an overlooked assignment, much to my son’s annoyance.

Most teachers use Zoom for videoconference, and the district has worked out security concerns. This time teachers closely monitor who’s accessing the class and should not let in unauthorized visitors. That means my child can’t use my Zoom account to attend class either unless the teacher has been informed.

For us the biggest challenge right now is real-time communication between teachers and students when there’s a glitch. Communication is over email and there’s a huge lag, and, what if you can’t get to email? I’ve suggested we use a phone app like Remind – already widely used at school – to let each other know what’s going on. Some teachers provide a cellphone.

Attendance is taken every period and kids are asked to keep their cameras on. They don’t all do it, and it’s hard for a parent with older kids to enforce. My kids want their privacy and frankly, I’m busy with my own work, too.

Attendance is critical, and I won’t tell my kids this, but I understand that EPISD has some flexibility here. To help when a student can’t login – the internet is out or there’s no device available – they can still be counted present as long as they submit their assignments that day. It’s not widely known, so parents may need to watch that.

All is working, but we very much hope to get back to campus soon. The kids confirm, being at school is better. EPISD is giving families a choice. They surveyed us over the summer, and I’m told that about 50% of parents want their kids to return.

The target is Oct. 19, following a new fall intersession break the week prior.

It will by a hybrid model split into two cohorts: Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday groups. When not on campus, students are online and everyone is online Wednesdays while the schools do a deep clean.

The Texas Education Agency has agreed to the full virtual model until the Oct. 19 date, but a return is contingent on community infection rates. We need to be below 5% infection rate for 14 straight days to move forward. We can return sooner if rates improve.

And what about sports?

Fall sports are planned with modified schedules. Practices start after Labor Day. Coaches will be doing things like temperature and symptoms check but social distance is impossible. The season is short, the number of games reduced and band, cheerleading and dance will only participate at home games. But the biggest issue still surrounds spectators. If spectators are allowed, it’s likely only to be parents. Of course, if there’s an outbreak, it’s all subject to cancelation.

There is controversy among parents with two opposing groups: One faction believes we need to be back to normal now and if you cared for your child’s wellbeing you should, too. The other thinks we should continue to quarantine indefinitely and if you cared for your child’s wellbeing you should, too. Neither of those work for me.

It all depends on your circumstances. I’m OK with this plan for now. We can make it work. I’d feel differently if I had small children who needed a lot more hands on support. I don’t think we could manage with our full-time jobs. I really feel for those parents and the additional complications they’re working through.

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