By Mitch Borden
Ector County ISD administrators are preparing to welcome students back in just a few short weeks. The district is giving students and parents options on how kids will be educated in the upcoming school year, but says it is ready to quickly transition to fully remote learning if it needs to.
Over a million masks, gallons of hand sanitizer and hundreds of thermometers are among the purchases Ector County ISD has made to help ensure the safety of students and educators as they return on August 12.
The details of the district’s reopening plan were presented to parents via Facebook Live on Wednesday.
Superintendent Scott Muri, alongside two other administrators, spent over an hour explaining the steps the district is taking to provide a safe learning environment and good education to students.
“We have learned over the last several months how important it is that all of us are adaptable to a society that is clearly ever-changing,” Muri said, adding that teaching students how to adapt is essential in a “world that seems to change by the day.”
Administrators have devised plans for students who will learn fully remotely, go to school in person everyday, or choose a hybrid approach of virtual and in-person instruction.
Elementary and middle school families can choose from those three options, but high schoolers are only able to choose between either taking online courses every day or attending in-person classes every other day and learning virtually on the off days. Muri said the main reason for this is Odessa’s overcrowded high schools are not large enough to safely hold in-person classes five days a week.
The district is currently estimating about a third of its students will choose to stay home for the fall semester. The actual number of students returning will be determined once parents decide how their students will be taught in the coming week.
Over the last five months, the coronavirus pandemic in the Odessa area has quickly changed. In the spring, case counts were at bay. But as numbers have spiked and Ector County nears 2,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, Muri is bracing for a potentially worsening situation by forming teams to help guide plans should they need to rapidly change.
The uncertainty of the pandemic is why the district has focused on creating a strong infrastructure for online learning for the upcoming school year.
“We wanted to make sure we took care of our most fragile students,” Muri explained. “We recognize that a lot of our children in the spring did not have a healthy learning experience.”
With online learning at the center of the district’s plan, a challenge is students’ access to the internet. According to Muri, 20% of students live in a household that does not have reliable internet. Through grant funding though, the district is able to provide high-quality internet to low-income families for the upcoming school year to address this problem. The district says it will also distribute devices to all ECISD students to ensure they can all access lessons, while also being prepared to go fully remote if schools need to close suddenly.
For those students without internet access, Muri says the district has launched a multi-million dollar project to provide broadband to all Ector County students in coordination with local, state, and the federal government.
The district will begin bringing students into classrooms on August 12, staggering their physical return.
The first phase will allow preschoolers, students with limited internet access, special needs students (such as English second language students or those with learning disabilities) and children of educators returning to classrooms. Once the first opening phase is completed, more students will be allowed back into the classrooms throughout the phase-in period that could last four to eight weeks.