Brownsville Independent School District students headed back to classes on Tuesday for a school year unlike any other.
Actually, the 2020-2021 school year started almost exactly like the last one ended, with BISD’s nearly 45,000 students attending classes remotely and preparing for the day when they can return to in-person classes in their actual classrooms.
There were many moving parts, including Wi-Fi connectivity at all 54 BISD campuses and augmented by 20 hotspots strategically deployed throughout the city via BISD school buses. Hotspot buses were available to access online classes at locations from the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center, to Sams Memorial Stadium to rural areas north of Veterans Memorial Early College High School and in the Southmost area.
The BISD Food and Nutrition Services department is distributing meals from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Friday in contactless drive-thru lines at each of BISD’s 34 elementary schools. Additional information on meal distribution and school bus hotspot locations is available on the BISD website, www.bisd.us
Transportation Director Eliud Ornelas and a team of BISD bus drivers spent last week pinpointing the most advantageous locations to park the hotspot buses. Each bus provides internet connectivity in a 300-foot radius for as many as 128 users. The connection is password protected and utilizes a firewall to make sure users only access school work, he said.
The system was being tested last week while schools across Brownsville distributed Chromebook, laptop and iPad computers to their students, along with traditional school supplies in drive-thru lines at each school.
The result was readiness at each campus for the first day of school. Besides the hotspot busses, each school already provided internet access access in its parking areas from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Robby Fisher, director of computer and technology services, said.
Fisher said that with Chromebook and iPad purchases made over the summer, BISD has reached the point where every student has an electronic device capable of doing online learning via Google Classroom, the district standard for third-grade through high school students, and SeeSaw for students in the primary grades.
At Stell Middle School, Maria Elena Abete, was teaching her sixth-period, eighth-grade English language arts class on a laptop in her classroom, room 106 of the eighth-grade wing, shortly after noon Tuesday.
Abete, who is in her 36th year as a BISD teacher, said it took some work over the summer getting ready for the 100% distance learning start, but it was worth the effort.
“My experience was absolutely awesome,” she said. “The kids were able to log on, it was a very relaxed atmosphere, and out of my 74 kids only 10 were not able to do their work either asynchronously (completing assignments independently) or synchronously (in real time while class was in session). That’s a big success.”
Stell Principal Obed Leal said classes are being taught on a block schedule much like students will experience once they get to high school.
“Out of 900 students, I’ve got 780 enrolled,” he said. “My job now is to go find the 120 that are missing.”
Abete said the part of teaching that requires familiarity between a teacher and his or her students is unavoidably more difficult with distance learning. The current arrangement is as good as can be expected with the coronavirus pandemic still rampant.
She said she looks forward to returning to a traditional classroom setting once conditions square with reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’m one of the older teachers and I do have underlying conditions,” she said. “Once the kids come back I’m going to be skeptical. A lot of my colleagues are in the same situation. This has taken a lot of work to get to this point. It’s a different world.”
A sign on her desk read, “We Can Do This,” which she said the community needs to know. Abete added that she and the other BISD teachers “have the benefit of working alongside a great administration.”