As school districts across the state determine how to best educate students amid rising coronavirus numbers, Fort Bend ISD announced students will begin the 2020-21 school year 100% online with the goal of gradually phasing in face-to-face instruction.

Superintendent Charles Dupre said the reason the district decided to begin the year online is twofold: first, to protect the health and safety of students and staff, and second, to get students and teachers acclimated to the new online learning program in the event schools close during the year because of coronavirus infections.

Glenda Macal, the president of the Fort Bend American Federation of Teachers, a teachers union representing 65,000 Texas teachers and staff, said while she was relieved by the district’s decision to begin the school year online, she recognizes in-person learning is important.

“Everybody agrees it’s best for kids to be in the classroom. You have to have that social-emotional support, interaction with the teacher, interaction with the kids,” Macal said. “But you can’t do that at the risk of losing your life. Right now, the way the numbers are—and they’re continuing to go up—it’s not safe.”

Prepping for back to school

While the first day of school in FBISD was originally scheduled for Aug. 12, the board of trustees moved the start date to Aug. 17 to give teachers more time to prepare for online learning.

The majority of FBISD students will begin the year online, with the exception of select students with special needs or those enrolled in hands-on career and technical classes, Dupre said in a town hall event July 15.

The district is working with a team of local health professionals, including Dr. Jacquelyn Minter, the director of Fort Bend County Health & Human Services, to develop health and safety protocols and plan for returning to campus.

During a July 20 board of trustees meeting, members of this team advised beginning the school year online is the best option because of the number of active coronavirus cases in the community. Furthermore, on July 14, Fort Bend County elevated its COVID-19 threat level to “high risk.” Under this level, schools and after-school youth programs are recommended to close.

“The local health authority does have the ability to work with the schools and look at what is going on in the community and get advice about how disease spread would be affected if schools were open,” Minter said. “Right now, we in Fort Bend County, as in the Houston region, are experiencing quite a bit of disease transmission. As a matter of fact, it is uncontrolled.”

While classes are taking place online, Dupre announced there will be no cocurricular or extracurricular activities. During this time, the district will provide devices and internet connectivity accommodations to students in need, Dupre said.

As of press time July 27, the district has said instruction will remain online for at least four weeks. Dupre said the decision to slowly bring students back into the schools will be made based on guidance from local health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the time comes, parents will be given the option of whether to send their children to in-person education or continue online learning.

While the Texas Education Agency initially mandated school districts offer some form of on-campus instruction, the agency announced July 17 that districts have the option to host the first four weeks online and can request an additional four weeks if needed. FBISD initially said teachers would be required to deliver instruction from the school but reversed this decision after hearing concerns from staff.

Prior to students returning to school buildings, FBISD teachers will learn and practice new health protocols.

However, Dupre said teachers will not be solely responsible for implementing the new measures. Instead, the district will hire wellness monitors, who will be stationed at each campus and building to perform temperature checks and enforce social distancing, among other roles.

Dupre said the district will have daily temperature checks, frequent hand-washing, mandatory face coverings, social distancing, limited class sizes and enhanced cleaning efforts.

Still, the district’s decision to begin school online has been met with some pushback from parents, including Jignesh Shah and Priti Savla, who said they wish the district had given them an option to send their ninth grader and first grader back for in-person instruction.

Shah and Savla said they believe the educational and social benefits outweigh the risk posed by the coronavirus to their family.

“We are not too thrilled about the whole online learning thing,” Savla said. “It would have been nice to have some options because I truly believe there has to be interaction for the kiddos.”

Online curriculum

Dupre said the district has worked to improve the quality of online learning curriculum before school starts in August. He said coursework and expectations will be more rigorous than what was offered in the spring, and students will have more access to synchronous instruction from their teachers.•“We can all agree our teachers worked hard, and we did our very best in the spring,” Dupre said during a July 15 virtual town hall. “But when we come back in the fall, we have got to take grades, and we have to have a rigorous learning program in place.”

Dupre stressed for the 2020-21 school year all compulsory attendance and truancy laws will be in place, and the district will rely on student engagement with synchronous and asynchronous learning to receive funding.

Synchronous learning occurs when both the teacher and the students are engaged online together. Asynchronous learning is time that will allow students to practice content and demonstrate their understanding.

Farah Rehman said because of the increasing numbers of coronavirus cases in Fort Bend County, she believes online learning is necessary for now. However, she felt there were not enough synchronous learning opportunities in the spring for her daughter, who will be going into second grade.

“I’m really hoping that it’s way more interactive and engaging and much more structured than what we experienced in the spring,” Rehman said.

Angela Graham said for her son Bruno, who has accommodations through the district for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, online learning was difficult because it was hard for him to focus when he was at home by himself.

“The spring semester, how it ended, was terribly detrimental to him in the sense that he was already struggling, and this just kind of set him back even more,” Graham said.

Dupre said during the July 15 town hall that he hears feedback from parents and staff who have been placed in difficult circumstances because of the district’s response to the pandemic. However, he said as the largest employer in Fort Bend County, with 11,000 employees serving nearly 80,000 students, the decisions FBISD makes affect how long the virus stays in the community.

“As much as we care about the individual needs of the individual student, we have to make decisions that serve the best interest of really• this entire community,” Dupre said.