Victoria school district officials, students and staff are maneuvering an ever changing education landscape through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Education is continuing to change with the delta variant of COVID-19 along with state requirements for remote learning. Officials also are preparing for the possibility of campus closures as COVID-19 cases continue to rise within Victoria’s school district, which are higher than what was seen at the beginning of the pandemic.
“They are much higher — much, much, much higher,” Superintendent Quintin Shepherd said.
Infections and attendance rates
The district has reported 125 employee cases and 731 student cases from the start of school through Thursday, according to district data.
About 100-125 students test positive for COVID-19 a day, Shepherd said. The rate of infection is tapering, though.
“It appears they are starting to level off,” Shepherd said.
On Aug. 31, the district announced it had over 667 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff within eight days. The number of students with COVID-19, 541, has surpassed that of the 2020-21 school year. About 251 staff tested positive for the virus for the 2020-21 school year.
During the last school year, masks were required for all students, employees and visitors on any Victoria campus. Those mask mandates were restricted by Gov. Greg Abbott in June. Now, the use of masks is up to family and employee discretion.
The district announced earlier this week that it is now operating at a Level 3 status level for COVID-19. This means there are widespread confirmed cases within the school community.
With the Level 3 status, campuses will implement self screening, greater social distancing through lunchroom dividers, limits for visitors on campuses, postponements of mass gathering events like open house, relocation of large activities like pep rallies outside, opening of windows when possible, and rapid COVID-19 testing for staff.
“Those are some of the things we are doing now that will be district wide if it becomes a Level 4,” Shepherd said.
There are no plans for district officials to implement a mask mandate at this time, Shepherd said.
As students become sick, they miss school. The district’s attendance rate is currently at 81%, Shepherd said.
That comes with its own set of challenges like students keeping up with curriculum and the loss of state funding.
If a teacher has one in every four students missing from class, this means they are constantly having to circle back on material to catch their students up to the rest of the class, Shepherd said. Students also have to learn the new evening remote learning option available through the district with a different teacher.
“It just continues to get worse and worse over time,” he said.
When students are not in the classroom, the district loses state funding. Texas school districts earn $35 per student per day, on average. When a student is not in class, the district does not receive the funds.
Potential school closures
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, so does the possibility of wide-scale campus closures. The closures come as more and more teachers and staff are out because of the virus.
“The direct pressure point is the number of staff that are absent makes it difficult for us to just maintain school as we know it,” Shepherd said. “We’ve had instances where we’ve had to ask secretaries to come in and supervise classrooms because we just don’t have enough adult bodies to supervise kids safely.”
With employees out sick, transportation, child nutrition and classrooms have to change to adapt with the limited amount of staff. The district is also seeing a shortage of substitute teachers, similar to last year.
“There is a real loss in operational effectiveness and at the same time it bears noting that quality of education suffers as a result,” Shepherd said.
Campus closures are not new to Victoria’s school district.
In the 2020-21 school year, several campuses closed because of an influx in staff illness and a shortage of substitute teachers. Torres and DeLeon elementary schools closed, and later the two high schools closed because of a rise in COVID-19 cases last year.
In those instances, students moved to synchronous remote learning. They learned with their teacher at the typical scheduled class time.
That won’t be the case this year.
“If the campuses close, there is no remote learning,” Shepherd said. This is because of the way remote learning is set up by the Texas Education Agency.
“They are just home for however long it takes,” he said.
Victoria’s school district has rolled out a virtual short-term night school option for eligible students who are out because of COVID-19.
The remote option is a conferencing period, and it is eligible for students who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are quarantining because of a positive COVID-19 case within the same household. Students are limited to 20 cumulative days of remote conferencing.
If a student does not meet either requirement, then they do not qualify for the remote learning option. This means, if a campus closes, most students will not qualify for the remote option.
The remote learning option will start at 4 p.m. for pre-kinder through high school students with attendance taken at 5:30 p.m., according to the district’s remote learning plan.
“Last year we had a bunch more leeway and this year the rules had made it very limiting,” Shepherd said.
Because of the limitations with remote learning, Shepherd encourages people to be really thoughtful on the decision they make when they send their kids to school, he said.
“It’s coming at a cost to the quality of our education system. It’s coming at a financial cost to the district,” he said. “It’s coming at a cost for us to operate efficiently,”