El Paso’s school districts may not be ready yet, but they’re getting ready for the strangest start of a school year that anybody’s ever seen.
That’s reflected on the websites of the nine school districts in El Paso County, some of which make it clear that going to school will be very different this year while others do not – at least not yet.
Largely because of the sharp increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas, El Paso’s health authority, Dr. Hector Ocaranza, took the extraordinary step of ordering school districts in El Paso not to open until Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.
It wasn’t a first for Ocaranza. He also ordered schools to remain closed after spring break and to move to remote instruction, connecting teachers and students online, not in person.
“We told them you cannot open the schools because we needed the schools to synchronize, and you’re going to stay on spring break until a specific date,” he said. “Days later, the governor closed the schools indefinitely.”
COVID-19 cases are soaring in Austin and Houston, and Texas leads the nation, which leads the world in COVID-19. El Paso had been looking a little better, in part because of its isolation. But no more.
“What happens to the rest of the state can give us some idea of what will happen here because we’re two weeks behind,” Ocaranza said.
On June 29, El Paso Independent School District announced plans to start school on Aug. 3 and offer a combination of in-person and virtual instruction, but the rise in COVID-19 cases and Ocaranza’s order to stay closed until after Labor Day changed those plans.
The district’s plan now is to start online classes Aug. 17. That will run for three weeks. Then, the children of parents who opt for on-campus instruction will return to schools Sept. 8 – sort of.
They will get two days of instruction in school and three days at home – except for those with special needs.
“Those days in school will be staggered – Monday and Tuesday in class and the other days at home,” said EPISD spokesman Gustavo Reveles. “It will not look like a traditional school year.
“Desks will be separated, and lunch won’t be like it was. School will be different.”
Ysleta and Socorro ISDs are following suit with plans of their own and Canutillo ISD had already gone to virtual instruction.
In Austin, one of the teachers unions is angrily protesting the district’s plan to reopen schools and bring students back to class rather than going all-virtual because of health concerns.
In El Paso, some parents are unhappy about EPISD’s plan to start students online for three weeks – except for those with conditions that require face-to-face instruction – and then let them go to a staggered two days in class and three days online schedule.
“My biggest concern is the kids not being able to go back in person and be in front of their teacher and interact with their peers,” said Parul Haribhai, a doctor of physical therapy, who has one child in middle school and another in high school. “I think it’s just as important for high schoolers as little children.”
A big part of her concern is the experience her children had last semester when students were sent home because of COVID-19 and were supposed to attend online classes after spring break.
The problem was that kids played hooky – and so did some teachers.
“My kids did not learn anything,” she said. “They did not, I feel, get any good instruction, and pretty much self-taught themselves. The teachers were supposed to conduct Zoom meetings, which only a few did.
“The teacher would come in for 15 minutes, give them an assignment for the day and leave. Half the kids came on Zoom, but half didn’t. There were some teachers in my daughter’s high school that were MIA (missing in action) the entire spring semester.
“I’m not going to be quiet about this at all if it goes through.”
Teacher and parent Tammy Zamora is one of a number of parents who posted their protests on Facebook’s local Moms On Board page.
“As a teacher and parent, I don’t think we should delay opening at all!” she said. “We don’t want our kids to fall further behind. For many, virtual learning does not work!”
Reveles said there’s little the district can do about online classes because social distancing in class and at lunch won’t work without reducing the number of students on campuses.
“This time, they will have a full week of instruction,” Reveles said. “We’ll be looking for teachers who thrive online. Before, it was all brand new with no training.
Now there will be for teachers, parents and students.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 630-6622.