The Austin Independent School District is finishing its first full week with students back in the classroom. Schools were allowed to bring back up to 25% of a building’s capacity and are phasing in more students over the next month.
Students who wanted to return from the youngest grades at each school got preference this week. At Boone Elementary School in South Austin, that meant kindergarteners. Here’s how it’s working at Boone, which welcomed 58 students back.
Getting to school looks much different than before the pandemic. Students must answer a series of health questions to confirm neither they nor their family members have any COVID symptoms. The form can be filled out ahead of time on an app or on paper at the school. Students then get their temperatures taken before heading inside.
On Friday, Jorge Hernandez dropped off his 5- and 10-year-olds. He said he and his wife agreed with the measures the district put in place to ensure safety, which made it worth it for the kids to be back with their teachers.
“We believe that what the teachers do is a great job,” Hernandez said. “They were trained to do that, they know how to make the most for the kids, things that we as a parent are not that well prepared.”
Teachers at Boone must teach both students in the classroom and those doing virtual learning from home.
Kindergarten teacher Ginger Bolen welcomed each of the three students physically in her class, as well as each student who logged onto Zoom at the beginning of the day. They all did their morning routine, including a dance, at the same time – just in different spaces.
“What the teachers are doing is beyond amazing. How easy she is making this look but how complicated it really is,” Principal Alan Stevens said about Bolen from the hallway. “The planning and the work they’re having to do. This staff is amazing.”
Students stay in one classroom, and art teachers, special education teachers and others come into the room to work with them.
“I just can’t imagine these kinder students,” Stevens said. “It’s their only experience with school. It’s going to be interesting as we get past this, how they develop through the next eight or nine years with this experience and how it affects them.”
In a third-grade class down the hall, Christina Tapia begins a lesson on the preamble to the Constitution. She looks back and forth between her laptop and the students in front of her to choose people to answer questions about what the preamble states.
She has a new camera, which Stevens bought over the summer, that flips back and forth to allow the virtual students to see either the teacher or their classmates. The students in the room can see their online classmates on a large TV screen.
Stevens said 50 more students are expected to come next week, and if everything keeps going smoothly, he anticipates more parents will feel comfortable sending their students back. He said he is proud of his staff and the families for taking each challenge as it comes and the last month has been extremely challenging for teachers.
“There is not a single thing in my day that is not the same as it was this time last year,” he said. “The adaptability of the staff is just so extreme. ... Here’s the next challenge. What are we going to do to get past it?” Stevens said.
He said he knows students might fall behind this year – both the ones who come back and the ones who stay online. But, he said he’s confident once the pandemic passes, educators will be able to catch them up academically and socially within a year.