The realities of a lost school year are setting in.
Students will not be going back to class for the rest of the semester — Gov. Greg Abbott made that announcement Friday.
And the traditional late-May graduation ceremonies will not happen this year in the Killeen and Copperas Cove school districts; instead they will be held virtually.
These and other sobering scenarios are playing out because of the highly infectious coronavirus and the efforts to stop its spread through social-distancing mandates.
As long as these directives remain in place, the education of 45,000 students in classroom settings is impossible, just as it’s not feasible to conduct multiple traditional commencement ceremonies with graduating classes of 500 seniors, plus their invited guests.
But these are just the school districts’ short-term concerns associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
As of Friday, the state reported 124 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bell County, up 14 in just two days and 40 in a week’s time. Another 71 cases had been reported in neighboring Coryell County, a jump of 56 cases over the past seven days.
Apparently, the virus’ spread isn’t peaking yet — at least not in Central Texas.
That leaves open the question of just how long the associated health risk will keep local school districts shut down — and what school district officials are going to do about it.
The Killeen Independent School District is making adjustments to what is a very fluid situation.
The district has opened a Continued Learning Center, offering students online access to educational programs. KISD also made 900 laptops available, upon request, for middle school and high students for continued learning and set up several wi-fi “hotspots” around the district, as well as take-home packets for elementary students who don’t have access to internet service at home. On Friday, the district announced it was offering free Microsoft Office access to all students to ensure a safe learning environment.
Also since the schools shut down in mid-March, the district has offered “Grab and Go” breakfasts and lunches at 12 schools each weekday — serving in excess of 4.000 meals a day.
On Friday, the district announced that graduating seniors would receive a free cap and gown, even though traditional commencement ceremonies would be replaced by a virtual experience.
In short, the district has done what it can to accommodate students and their families during a difficult time of transition.
The question is, what will the district — and other area school districts — do if the order to keep schools closed extends into the fall?
KISD Superintendent John Craft last week suggested extending the school year into the summer.
That is certainly a possibility, but to what end?
The district already decided to base students’ final grades on the third nine-week grading period. The governor announced earlier this year that the state would not require STAAR testing this spring. And students have been out of the classroom for more than a month. Why further disrupt the lives of students and their families by requiring summer classes?
Certainly, returning to classroom instruction too soon would be unwise, given the health risks involved with bringing 50,000 students, faculty and staff together, even if the virus is waning locally — and Craft acknowledged as much last week.
Many parents would feel compelled to keep their children home from school out of concern for their health. More than a few educators likely would stay away from the classroom for the same reason.
Killeen Educators Association President Rick Beaulé said last week that the district should not return to classroom instruction until after a vaccine has been developed.
That’s an unreasonable expectation — especially since health experts predict that a vaccine is a year to 18 months away.
But the safety of the district’s students, teachers and staff must come first — and that may mean a continuation of online instruction into the next school year.
These are questions local administrators and school boards are wrestling with — and with good reason.
School districts invest heavily in hiring qualified teachers, providing educational resources and offering a structured environment for learning. But with schools shut down, the teaching process becomes increasingly strained.
For one thing, the burden of teaching students shifts from the school district to the parents.
True, the district can provide the lessons, the materials and online access, but it is up to the students’ parents to provide the structure and discipline — and that is problematic.
Because of work schedules or other obligations, some parents may not have the time to work with their children on the lessons provided by the district. Others, who have lost their jobs recently and are worried about their financial future, may not be able to focus on their children’s educational needs. And other parents just don’t have the skills to guide their children — especially those in younger grades — through the online learning process.
This disconnect is particularly troubling in the case of special-education students, whose parents often lack the education and training to effectively meet their children’s educational needs. In addition, the district provides specialized learning plans that are best administered by an experienced instructor. That’s not happening right now.
In following the governor’s directive on social distancing and large gatherings, school districts across the state are effectively forcing millions of parents to homeschool their children — certainly not an optimum solution.
Over a period of several months, this could result in vast inequalities in student learning and achievement — which could have academic repercussions over several semesters.
No doubt, how to proceed heading into the fall term is one of the most difficult challenges school officials face.
If schools open too soon, there is a heightened risk to students, faculty and staff, who might contract the coronavirus and aid its spread in the community.
If schools are kept closed late into the year, districts risk having their students fall behind in their studies, potentially jeopardizing their academic future.
Of course, the governor will have the final say on when schools may reopen, but each school district must develop a strategy leading up to that time — and how best to proceed once the students return.
Finding the right answers will be difficult, and given the evolving situation regarding the virus, the best solution this week may not be right two weeks from now.
Still, it’s incumbent upon our school officials to find ways to see us through this public health crisis.
Whatever they decide, our school administrators and board members deserve our input, our support and our prayers.
The future of our students — and our community as a whole — may hang in the balance.