Killeen school district officials are faced with a difficult choice in planning for fall-semester instruction: What is safest versus what is most effective?
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent John Craft offered three potential scenarios for starting the upcoming school year, amid continuing concerns about controlling the spread of the coronavirus.
One scenario involves face-to-face learning throughout the Killeen Independent School District, beginning Aug. 17. Online options would be available for concerned parents.
A second option involves continuing with online learning only — as the district has done since state-mandated restrictions shut down classroom learning in late March.
A third option calls for a hybrid instructional approach, with half the students attending class in person one day and receiving online instruction the next, with the other half of the student population on an alternate schedule.
Unfortunately, none of these options is perfect, for a variety of reasons.
The traditional, in-person option may be the best for student-teacher interaction, group participation and overall educational experience, but it’s dangerous, as Craft recognizes.
With 46,000 students spread across 51 campuses, the odds of preventing a spike in coronavirus infections are low, even if the virus is less in evidence by mid-August. Simply putting that many students together, along with staff and administration, is a recipe for potential disaster.
Even a modified option being considered — having elementary students return to a classroom setting, while middle school and high students receive instruction virtually — brings together a dangerously high concentration of children.
But in some ways, the online-only approach is equally problematic. Even if students are provided with the necessary instructional materials to integrate with the online lessons, at-home learning has its shortcomings.
For one thing, this approach puts the responsibility on parents or guardians to ensure the students keep up with the online lessons and complete their coursework.
This method also requires each household to have a working computer and internet access — a situation that’s not universal with all students, though the district is working to provide laptops and wifi hotspot access.
Still, the hybrid concept seems like a half-measure. Alternating between a classroom setting and online learning may have its benefits as far as in-person reinforcement of instruction and professional guidance, but it also may get students out of their rhythm — especially those who prefer one learning style over the other.
And even though only half as many students would be in the classroom on any given day, the total number of students on campus district-wide would still be about 20,000 each weekday. That’s a considerable number, especially if the coronavirus infection rate is still an issue locally.
Given the numbers recorded in Bell County this week, that’s a distinct possibility.
Between Wednesday and Friday, the county’s public health district reported 79 new cases of the coronavirus — the highest three-day count and the largest single-day spike (34 on Wednesday) to date.
With the state continuing to loosen restrictions on customer capacity for restaurants and retailers, the number of cases is likely to remain high for weeks to come. Certainly, we’re nowhere near the point of a downward trend at this point.
No doubt, that makes the decision even more difficult for school district administrators.
So far, KISD has played it safe, continuing online education for its summer school session, which is currently underway.
The district also has proposed a 2020-2021 calendar that has extra vacation time built into the school year, in the event that the district needs to close down for a coronavirus-related 14-day quarantine.
That’s a prudent consideration. However, it may not be an adequate solution.
Realistically, a spike in COVID-19 cases on a single campus would necessitate closing down the entire district for two weeks. That’s because the exposed students could infect family members or students who attend other KISD schools, therefore increasing the spread.
But even with such a shutdown, the likelihood of spikes at other campuses remains high — if only because of the sheer number of students and campuses across the district.
If KISD is forced to close schools several times during the year, the extra time built into the calendar won’t be sufficient.
Granted, the public health outlook could change between now and mid-August. But parents need to hear what the district’s plans for instruction are, sooner rather than later.
For one thing, parents need to know if they must arrange for child care. That means knowing whether their child will be in the classroom five days a week, every other day or not at all. And with the limited number of daycare providers in this area, the available spots will fill up quickly once the district’s instructional plan is announced.
Also, parents of school-age children may need to seek accommodations from their employers regarding work schedules or requested time off. Both employees and employers deserve as much advance notice as possible in this regard.
Perhaps the best strategy for the district is to continue instruction online through the fall term, and make that announcement in the next two weeks so parents can plan accordingly.
This would provide continuity for students who were learning virtually at the end of the school year, and it will also minimize potential spikes in cases of the virus.
It will also provide teaching staff and administrators time to prepare a full semester’s worth of online lessons and instructional materials.
If the virus risk remains low, the district could transition to in-person instruction at the start of the spring semester.
No doubt, this would be disappointing for many of the district’s students and staff — as well as somewhat frustrating for parents who have grown weary of the at-home process.
District residents will have a chance to weigh in with their thoughts and concerns over the coming week. KISD is conducting a survey June 17-22 to gather input on how the district can safely reopen this fall.
The survey can be found on the district’s website, or surveys can be picked up at any of the district’s Grab and Go meal locations, which are listed on the site.
In a video publicizing the survey, Craft said the responses will be passed on to the school board as part of the trustees’ decision-making process.
This is a welcome, inclusive step, but two things must be kept in mind.
First, KISD students and district staff represent a considerable portion of our local communities’ population. Putting them back in the schools too soon could negate any successful attempts to slow the spread of the virus to date.
Secondly, the state does not conduct contact tracing in the schools, which means once the virus starts moving throughout the school system, it will be difficult to locate its place of origin.
Bottom line, the district should continue to play it safe and stick with online instruction, in the near term — as unpopular as that choice may be.
This is one decision the district simply cannot afford to get wrong.