BISD lays plans for soft reopening; In-person start to happen in phases

Faced with the state witholding funds, the Brownsville Independent School District took the first steps Thursday toward reopening its schools to a limited number of students in a soft start beginning on Sept. 23.

The action came even as state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. earlier in the day sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott urging him not to require BISD to reopen schools during the second four-week transitional period of the new school year beginning on Sept 28.

“Their concerns, regrettably, are valid: they report that over 100 Brownsville residents have passed away due to COVID-19 just in the past two days, and they fear that following TEA’s guidance and bringing so many children into close proximity will speed, rather than slow, this deadly toll. … I humbly request that you provide consideration for the highly at-risk students, parents and educators of the Valley, specifically by waiving the requirement for partial in-person instruction during BISD’s transition period. We have this brief opportunity to forestall the disaster that is likely to occur with the students’ return to school. I pray we do not let it go to waste,” Lucio wrote.

Officials expressed hope for a reprieve. As it stands:

Parents had until the end of the day last Friday to complete student commitment forms saying whether they want 100% distance learning or in-person instruction for their students for the second six weeks of school, which begins Sept. 28. District officials have said between 10% and 15% of parents are choosing the in-person option.

The schools would reopen in phases, with high school students needing to recover credit going on Sept. 23, followed on Sept. 28 by special education students and those without devices or internet access in grades pre-k through 2nd, 8th and 12th grades. Similar such students in 3rd, 4th, 7th and 11th grades would be added on Oct. 5, with those in 5th, 6th, 9th and 10th grades joining them on Oct. 13.

“We’re going to be ready and we’re going to have a plan,” Superintendent Rene Gutierrez said at Thursday night’s BISD Board of Trustees meeting after recapping the situation facing the district: Most of BISD’s 43,000 students are able to participate in 100% distance learning via the internet but not all. BISD is distributing Chromebook, laptop and iPad computers to all students, but there aren’t enough to go around. Deliveries are arriving, with some 6,000 iPads and 12,000 hotspot devices to connect to the internet arriving this past week.

“We’re not the only ones. The whole country wants this,” Gutierrez said, adding that BISD had been proactive in getting the equipment. Other officials said BISD had gotten in line before some districts even knew there was a line.

Meanwhile Abbott and the Texas Education Agency have been pushing districts to open for in-person instruction for students who can’t access online lessons.

“I thought, what if we presented a motion to the board to open the district for 100% distance learning for the whole first semester. … The answer was yes they will penalize us even if the board approves 100% distance learning,” the superintendent said.

Gutierrez, Board President Minerva Pena and other trustees said BISD is fighting hard for the 100% online option but that the district needs to be ready if TEA forces its hand.

After hearing the administration’s plan for reopening, the board voted 6-0 to approve a motion by Pena asking Abbott to extend virtual distance learning for all BISD students and faculty for the entire 2020 fall semester.