Cynthia Lewis, a teacher at Pebble Hills Elementary, displays her virtual fourth-grade classroom on Monday, Aug. 10. Like other schools in El Paso, Pebble Hills will begin the year with at least three weeks of online learning for all students. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Krista Brooker has been wondering if she needs to find a new job. 

As a clinical supervisor, Brooker has asked her employer if she can bring her kids — one in elementary school and the other about to start middle school —  to work with her as the new school year begins. While she hasn’t received a firm answer, she said she knows the chances are unlikely. 

“I am a working mom and I have to decide, do I want my kids to school for two days a week and then have them go stay with my parents and risk exposing my parents to germs from a middle school and an elementary school,” Brooker, who lives in the El Paso Independent School District, said. “Or do I max out our budget and get a nanny for them, not knowing where that person goes when they’re not working with my kids. Or do I put them in virtual school and … have to find a different job?” 

Parents and guardians with students enrolled in El Paso-area school districts have been filling out surveys to indicate which learning environment they prefer for their students. While the specifics of each district’s plan will vary, many districts present households with three models of learning: entirely virtual instruction, a hybrid of in-person and online instruction, or a return to traditional in-person instruction.

El Paso-area schools generally plan to do online-only education for the first eight weeks of the school year, which begins Monday. After that, parents get to decide if their children return to class, continue with online-only education, or a combination of the two. 

“Even though I just started at this clinic and I love my job, I’ve been looking at other jobs where I can stay at home,” Brooker said. “And it’s unfortunate that you just worked so hard for your career. Look, you can’t have both. You can’t have kids and a career.”

Krista Brooker and her family enjoyed some time together before the start of school. (Photo courtesy of Krista Brooker)

For many, the goal of reopening schools is an answer to concerns that students will fall behind in instruction — particularly for important grade transitions. When thinking about her son, who will be starting middle school, Brooker said she didn’t know how parents were expected to weigh the value of face-to-face instruction for harder classes against the risks of him exposing their family and others to COVID-19. 

“Do I want my 11-year-old teaching himself for three-fifths of the school week?” Brooker said. “Even if we decided, ‘OK, well, you know, he’s in some challenging classes, he’s been dual language, it’d be better if he could have some face-to-face time with the teacher.’ Is that face-to-face time worth the risk of getting COVID and bringing it home to the family and then potentially spreading it to my client at the clinic, or my parents who are in their 70s?” 

If they opted for a virtual program, Brooker worried if and how her kids would suffer academically without the in-person contact. 

Surveys ask parents to make choices

The measures of academic regression have been widely discussed as plans for reopening have been revised. Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued guidelines for schools with one purpose in mind: to get students physically back in the classroom.  

In addition to concerns about the effectiveness of online instruction as a teaching medium, advocates for reopening point to schools as an access point for nutrition, support systems like counseling and other critical spaces that contribute to a child’s wellbeing. 

For parents like Brooker, however, the justification to reopen in-person in-person instruction still is unclear.

“(The schools) shut down before we had any known cases in the city,” Brooker said. “So shutting down because of the worry of COVID coming but reopening when we have … almost (17,000) cases? It’s completely baffling.” 

The survey responses will inform how administrators plan for the start of the school year as the rates of COVID-19 continue to climb in the area. As of Sunday, El Paso health officials have reported more than 1,100  COVID-19 cases among teenagers and more than 900 cases in children under the age of 12. The vast majority of those cases have come since July 1.

Dianne Kett has seven kids, four enrolled in EPISD. For her, the decision is not a one-size-fits-all choice. 

“Pandemic aside, I think the kids’ education is the number one priority and they need to get it from the source that is going to be the best for them and for them as an individual, not them as an entire group because with seven of them I have seven completely different learners,” Kett said.

One of Kett’s daughters, a senior in high school, eventually will be attending on a staggered schedule with a full schedule of advanced placement classes and extracurriculars. Kett’s fourth- and second-graders also will be going on a staggered basis while her youngest, a kindergartner, will have in-person instruction full time. 

“She went to private preschool in the spring when this whole chaos went down and so she quit going to preschool…,” Kett said. “I tried to homeschool, like, just a homeschool curriculum with her, and it was a nightmare. And I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this for kindergarten. I’m not a teacher.’ It’s not my thing. I don’t know how to do this.”

Choosing to home-school

Others have opted to forgo the risk of in-person exposure all together. Melissa Montalvo decided to homeschool her two kids for the next year.

“We’re not afraid of the virus per se because they can catch that almost anywhere. I’m not going to say that I’m trying to have them live in a bubble. However, I am aware of the fact that the school districts are going to be overwhelmed,” Montalvo said. “The schools are going to be overwhelmed, the teachers are going to be overwhelmed having to balance all these children on several different platforms and on different schedules.”

Montalvo, a stay-at-home mom with two kids in the Socorro Independent School District, said the spring closure was hectic for her family. She also explained that the coursework was not as it was during normal instruction.  

“My son’s assignments were very basic, for lack of a better word…” Montalvo said. “He was done within 10 or 15 minutes of his lessons and it just seemed like a very watered-down education.”

Montalvo said she didn’t believe schools could implement and reasonably enforce safety measures for students and faculty. 

“Aside from the fact that we want to keep them thoroughly educated and not allow them to fall behind, there is that small trace of ‘what if?’” Montalvo said. “The schools can only implement so much, they can only be responsible for so much.”

Fernando Garcia, the executive director for Border Networks for Human Rights, said he works with a lot of older families who are from lower economic levels or have access to fewer resources. Garcia said the plans announced by school districts don’t adequately provide families’ options to make the best choices for their households.

“I think right now is going to be a very difficult, even more difficult than my decision, that many other families have in terms of sending the school the kids to school the full term — the full five days — knowing that cases are going up, but that’s going to be the best way to go because the parents will continue to work,” Garcia said. “Or if they’re going to stay (home), how are they going to pay somebody? How are they going to take care of them at home? So I think that is the reality of that. That is crushing the spirits of the people.”

Safety steps for schools

The Texas Education Agency released guidelines for districts July 7 about what measures districts must have in place. Such requirements include self-screening and compliance with Abbott’s executive order that requires face coverings.

EPISD spokeswoman Melissa Martinez said they’re working on their own measures, like staggering schedules to reduce crowds and strategizing how to reduce spaces where there would be crowds of students, like lunch hours.

“For instance at a high school, that’s a difficult situation, especially in our larger ones, so we can at least reduce (crowds) by 50 percent,” Martinez said. “It limits that interaction with other people.”

Another dimension to address, Martinez said, was the distribution of technology to students who will be participating in the virtual or hybrid instruction models. While high school students already had received laptops, Martinez said EPISD distributed thousands of devices to the elementary and middle school-aged students in the spring. 

“It is a challenge again, of course, because we only have enough devices to provide one per family,” Martinez said. “And so that is challenging for families that have children in different grade levels or even just multiple children having to use the same device. And so that’s something definitely we’re taking into consideration as we move forward as we plan the lessons and the instruction.”

Martinez said it is “cost prohibitive” for the district to provide a device for every student. This reality further complicates the potential need for educators to instruct students across the different instruction models. That decision, however, will be decided by the official survey results. 

“What we’ve talked about is the ability to record lessons,” Martinez said. “So when I’m teaching Monday and Tuesday in person, I’m recording those lessons, so that those virtual students have the opportunity to see them, you know, later, or perhaps live even if we can Skype them in. So, again, so much of it is happening on a very short timeline. And I think we just, we do the best that we can.”

How a rural district is responding

Similar planning is taking place across other districts, too. At Fabens Independent School District, Assistant Superintendent Michele Gonzalez said they anticipate about half of students to choose the online model of instruction. For students who will be in-person, Gonzalez said they are integrating public health measures. 

“In order to observe all of the social distancing requirements that we’ve been given thus far, we are going down to about half the amount of students we normally have in each classroom, which is roughly 11 students per class, so that we can space out the students and follow all the social distancing guidelines,” Gonzalez said. “So in order to do that, we do have a possible rotation of students.”

Tornillo Elementary School teachers and Principal Mirna Lopez discuss the plan for the new school year while social distancing. (Mariela Jimenez-Rivero/El Paso Matters)

Safety measures also include removing excess furniture from rooms, hosting lunch hours in classrooms and staggering passing periods. 

Gonzalez said the biggest obstacle is internet access. To address this, the district ordered Chromebooks and mobile hotspots. Three hundred high school students checked out Chromebooks and 14 checked out mobile hotspots at the time of the spring closure. The district plans to have enough mobile hotspots for every virtual student by the start of the year. 

“By purchasing hotspots that’s helping, but it’s not 100 percent,” Gonzalez said. “…Spectrum offered free internet for students, but half of our town isn’t covered by Spectrum and we have some difficult areas to reach so we’ve done some creative things.”

Districts also are having to prepare if students might need to switch instruction modes. While most district surveys ask that families commit to a quarter or semester grading period, Gonzalez said they have to factor the chance of any unplanned events.

“We do know and recognize that a family might decide to go face to face, and then they’re faced with exposure to COVID and they have to go remote without any notice,” Gonzalez said. “So we’re going to be prepared for that fluidity. And that’s why we like the idea of the teacher having a caseload that includes both virtual students and face-to-face students so as those fluctuate, their kids are still used to that same teacher.” 

Despite the complexities to the reopening plans, Gonzalez said she was heartened by the attitudes of administrators, teachers and families as they prepare for the year.

“It’s just an incredible amount of work to get this done and to get this switched over, even teachers agreeing to do summer school,” Gonzalez said. “I know it’s a lot for them. But people have really stepped up and reached out to our students. Our parents and community have been wonderful and supportive, and they want the best for their students.” 

Cover photo: Cynthia Lewis, a teacher at Pebble Hills Elementary, displays her virtual fourth-grade classroom. El Paso schools will use online-only instruction for eight weeks, then parents will decide what form their children’s education will take. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Emma Baker is interning as a data reporter with El Paso Matters through the Dow Jones News Fund. She is a student at Washington University in St. Louis where she studies English literature and Computer...