The Brownsville Independent School District is moving ahead with plans to reopen schools in August after Gov. Greg Abbott told state lawmakers last week that Texas students would be returning to public schools for in-person instruction in the fall.
In a conference call with lawmakers on Thursday, Abbott said his intention is for students to return to classes in person this fall, but also that higher safety standards would be in place than when schools opened for the school year just ended. He said further guidance would come from the Texas Education Agency.
“It will be safe for Texas public school students, teachers, and staff to return to school campuses for in-person instruction this fall. But there will also be flexibility for families with health concerns so that their children can be educated remotely, if the parent so chooses,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement to the Texas Tribune on Thursday.
Morath also said for the first time that there would be no limit on class size. When classes resume, the state will not require students and teachers to wear masks, but districts will be able to make their own rules on face coverings, an agency spokeswoman said. TEA is expected to release additional guidance for school districts on Tuesday.
BISD plans to make three options available to parents: Instruction completely at schools, fully online instruction at home and a hybrid of the two.
The developments come as Texas reopens from the coronavirus shutdown. Schools are key to parents being able to go back to work, but COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise statewide. A Cameron County order went into effect Friday requiring residents to wear masks or facial coverings at businesses to tamp down spread of the virus.
BISD Superintendent Rene Gutierrez said Thursday and at a Curriculum and Instruction Committee workshop on Wednesday that Texas appears headed toward reopening schools as close as possible to a traditional, normal school year.
“We have models ready to implement based on what the orders from the governor and TEA turn out to be,” Gutierrez said Thursday after a budget committee workshop that stretched into the late afternoon.
“Right now, it’s a little too early to say. The higher the number of positive cases, those orders may change by August,” he added.
In the meantime BISD is “planning for the worst but hoping for the best,” he said.
“One thing that I can assure the board and the community is that BISD is getting ready for our kids in the fall,” Gutierrez said during Wednesday’s Curriculum and Instruction workshop.
Administration outlined a basic framework that envisions schools opening on a full-day split schedule with half of the students in the building at a time.
Under a hybrid plan, students would attend in-person classes either Monday and Tuesday or Wednesday and Thursday, and attend online from home the other two days, with a half-day of more personalized instruction on Fridays for both groups and a half-day for teacher preparation.
Officials said schedules could quickly be adapted to accommodate all students being at school all day if that is eventually determined to be the plan.
The district will also offer completely online instruction for students whose families don’t yet feel comfortable having them return to in-person classes.
“Distance learning is here to stay,” Gutierrez said. “We know there are parents who are still not going to bring their kids to school, so the technology component has to be there. … Every model includes distance learning.”
Gutierrez said presentations made at Wednesday’s meeting were the result of many hours of behind-the-scenes work by the Curriculum and Instruction Department, school principals and other departments including the Transportation Department.
“The good thing is that we have models in place that fit whatever they bring to us. … Whatever they allow us to do there’s a model in place … and we have ideas how to implement it,” he said.
Meanwhile, BISD personnel are responding to a survey that asks them to choose between two alternative school calendars. Both include extra days of instruction and, at TEA’s direction, anticipate schools being closed for short periods due to potential COVID-19 outbreaks.
One envisions school ending May 27, the other about June 10, Anysia R. Trevino, deputy superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, said.
An ongoing survey on the BISD website asks parents to state their preference among traditional in-person instruction at school, completely online instruction at home, or a hybrid of the two.
About 25 percent of parents are choosing completely online learning at home. Both surveys are on the BISD website, bisd.us.