4 takeaways from KSAT’s Back to School virtual town hall

Questions, concerns on schools addressed by local leaders

SAN ANTONIO – The upcoming school year is sure to be unlike any other.

With so many lingering questions about how schools can reopen safely amid the coronavirus pandemic, KSAT 12 hosted a live town hall with five panelists at the forefront of the back-to-school discussion in San Antonio. Next Wednesday, Aug. 19, SA Live will present a primetime Back to School special on KSAT12 and KSAT.com.

Before that, we take a look back at the four biggest takeaways from KSAT’s town hall:

1. Bexar County school district leaders will base decisions on Metro Health guidance

San Antonio and Northside Independent School District superintendents Pedro Martinez and Brian Woods said they are not setting any arbitrary deadlines on when schools can fully reopen for in-person instruction.

Along with the other superintendents in Bexar County, the school districts will use Metro Health’s directive as guidance on when and how to reopen.

Part of Metro Health’s directive includes a safety indicator bar that is based on three COVID-19 metrics — the number of days it takes for cumulative COVID-19 cases to double in Bexar County, the positivity rate and a steady, 14-day decline in COVID-19 infections.

As long as the indicator is red, schools should only offer virtual instruction.

Martinez said every decision school districts make will depend on the science.

2. Extracurriculars won’t be happening anytime soon

Although high school football is a staple in Texas, extracurriculars cannot happen under Metro Health guidance while the risk level is high, Martinez said on Tuesday.

With some collegiate football conferences canceling football seasons in the fall, many high schools in Texas could follow suit.

Extracurriculars will not be able to start up again until the indicator bar is on green, meaning that the risk of COVID-19 spread is low.

“Even there, we’re not looking at high-contact sports. We’re looking at individual sports, practice, training,” Martinez said.

Canceling extracurriculars was a difficult decision, Martinez said, because he knows how important they are to students.

“We’re going to be very careful. As much as our children love extracurriculars, we’re going to have to do it in a safe way,” Martinez said.

3. Parents appreciate teachers’ efforts

In a survey of parents and students conducted by the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban Education Institute, the majority of parents praised their teachers for how they handled distance learning last spring.

“The number one stat that stands out for me is that 57% of students and parents said their teachers were helpful and that they didn’t need to improve upon anything during this stressful time,” said Mike Villarreal, director of the Urban Education Institute and a former San Antonio state Rep. “There was really a lot of grace I think being expressed by students and parents.”

Still, the survey showed virtual learning needs to improve in the fall. Villarreal said 64% of students suffered a “loss of learning.” Many students suffered from less engagement and less activity, Villarreal said.

Nearly 15% of students reported higher rates of learning, though.

“It’s a really interesting phenomenon to try and understand,” Villarreal said. “As we move forward, how can we learn what works and what doesn’t for different types of students out there?”

4. The digital divide needs to be addressed

The coronavirus pandemic exposed the disparity among San Antonio students who don’t all have the same access when it comes to virtual learning.

“Inequity in this community have been in existence for decades, and this pandemic is only making it worse,” Martinez said.

KSAT Explains: Digital divide in San Antonio amid COVID-19 pandemic

It’s an issue that gravely concerns state Representative Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, the vice-chair of the Texas House Committee on Public Education.

“We have to have a public reckoning that we are the poorest city in the country,” Bernal said. “The pandemic laid bare something that we maybe ignored but shouldn’t have. Now, unless we face it head-on, it’s going to continue.”

In SAISD, Martinez said roughly 3,000 students were not accounted for last spring when schools quickly transitioned to virtual instruction. The district has distributed more than 42,000 devices to families in an effort to keep students connected, but there are still issues that need to be addressed.

“With all the hotspots we distributed, I still have neighborhoods where the (internet) infrastructure in the ground isn’t strong enough or reliable enough for our children,” Martinez said.

The district is working with the city to roll out an internet service for children who are most at-need.

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