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Dell City ISD Adopts Emergency Resolution in Response to Coronavirus Pandemic

For Cougar students, Instruction Continues at Home


The Dell City ISD school board held its monthly meeting last Thursday, March 26, and steps to respond to the coronavirus pandemic – and to insure that instruction continues during the ongoing school closure – topped the agenda.


Trustees adopted a resolution making “emergency modifications to [district] policies” in the context of the closure, and the state of disaster that has been declared at both the state and national levels because of the pandemic. The resolution authorizes the district to continue paying staff during the closure. It also authorizes Supt. Ruben Cervantes to make necessary purchases and to extend the school closure. The resolution holds for 45 days.


At present, the Dell City School is closed until April 6. On March 17, the school board – in an emergency meeting – voted to extend the closure of the Dell City School for a week after Spring Break, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Then, two days later, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all Texas school closed until April 6. Abbott could extend the statewide closure.


But if he doesn't, Cervantes could act to keep the Cougar campus closed. He said that such a decision would be made in consultation with school board members.


“I'll notify you,” Cervantes said. “But this means we can take action without having to hold an emergency meeting. And this also gives us authority to make sure people get paid during the closure – for that, a resolution is required – and that things that need to be purchased can be.”


Cervantes said those necessary expenses could include items to help students continue their coursework at home.


Cervantes noted that, at the time of the meeting, several El Paso County school districts had announced their campuses would be closed for the remainder of the school year. Cervantes mentioned Socorro ISD and El Paso ISD. Since the meeting, Ysleta ISD, San Elizario ISD, Clint ISD, Canutillo ISD, Anthony ISD and Fabens ISD have joined the list of El Paso-area districts that have extended school closures “indefinitely.”


Cervantes told trustees those districts “can always change that and go back to school in May, if everything gets better.” But, he said, the announcements “help parents prepare for the possibility of extended closure, and to make arrangements for caring for their children.”


At the time of the meeting, there were 24 confirmed coronavirus cases in El Paso. By Sunday, that number had risen to 40.


School board members met in person at the school library, and six of the board's seven members – Steve Carpenter, Eric Bell, Frank Archuleta, Sara Gage, Debi Berry and Tim McCray – were present. But in keeping with the statewide order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more, the public was able to participate in the meeting remotely – through video- and teleconferencing connections arranged by district Business Manager Melanie Gentry.


Principal Carlos A. Contreras updated school board members on how instruction is continuing during the closure. Teachers and staff reported to school Monday, March 23. The staff members met with Cervantes and Contreras in small groups, and then teachers went to their classrooms to prepare “home instruction packets.” Those packets included two weeks worth of work for students. That afternoon, parents came to school, and outside the school, received packets from teachers. Contreras said that “100 percent of our parents” came to receive the home instruction packets.


Educators are expected to check in with each of their students on a daily basis, and teachers submit work logs each day. Main-office staffers Susie Estrada and Debbie Guillen are helping teachers contact parents if necessary.


On Monday, March 30, parents were scheduled to visit the school again, between 2 and 4 p.m., to drop off their students' work and receive new assignments. In order to reduce opportunities for the virus to spread in Dell Valley, Contreras said that the school's El Paso-based teachers would not be traveling here. He said that he and Cervantes would meet with teachers in El Paso, and would be the only El Paso-based staff making the trip to Dell City.


The school is also exploring methods for teaching students online during the closure. Gentry told school board members the district has 25 students – or more than a third of the student body – who do not have internet access at home. She said she was scheduled to meet with staff from Dell Telephone the following day, to discuss creating “hotspots” in Dell Valley that would allow most of those students to access the internet from home.


Most Cougar students have laptops, iPads or Chromebooks from the district – with these devices, students could download books and other materials at home, and teachers could check students' progress online. Cervantes said the district is now making sure that all students have devices they can use.


“Eventually, we need to go online,” Cervantes said. “But it's not going to happen overnight.”


The district is continuing to provide free school meals during the closure, to be picked up by parents outside the school. Initially, beginning March 23, the district was providing breakfast from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., and lunch from noon to 1 p.m. But Contreras said turnout for breakfast had been low, and the school shifted to serving breakfast and lunch together, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The day before the school board meeting, breakfast and lunch for 43 students had been served.


The STAAR exam, and other state-required testing, has been canceled statewide for the year.


Dell City ISD was recently assigned a “monitor” by the Texas Education Agency. Monitors are typically assigned to districts that have failed to meet state standards in testing and other areas. Dell City ISD has met standards the last two school years, but just barely, and the TEA assigned Dr. Dino Coronado as the district's monitor.


Having a monitor costs Dell City ISD between $2,000 and $3,000 a month. Cervantes had written to TEA last spring – urging that a monitor not be appointed to the district, and arguing that there were more critical ways the district could use the funds. The TEA held off on appointing a monitor more than 10 months, but Coronado, a veteran educator with experience in West Texas, was recently appointed to the position.


Cervantes told school board members that while the cancelation of state testing “alleviates stress” for students and staff, it also means the district will not have the opportunity to demonstrate improvement in student achievement – which means that Dr. Coronado is likely to return as the district's monitor next school year.


In other business at the March 26 meeting, school board members discussed renovations to school restrooms – a project the district has hoped to undertake for some time.


County Commissioner Sonny Berry, whose precinct includes Dell Valley, addressed the school board about the “West Texas School Fund” – which could provide funding to pay for the restroom renovations. In this fund, the West Texas Detention Center, the private prison near Sierra Blanca, provides money to the county each month, based on the number of detainees the facility holds. County commissioners in turn are responsible for dispersing that money among Hudspeth County's three school districts.


Dell City ISD last month requested $87,000 from the fund to pay for the restroom work. Berry said that request had been lost in the mail, and was therefore not taken up at the commissioners' most recent meeting. And, he said, the fund currently contains less than $70,000. But Berry said that by June there should be enough money in the fund to cover the district's request, and that county commissioners would take up the matter at that time. He said he was confident the district would receive the funds.


“Commissioners agreed it was a high priority for Dell City to get money for the restrooms,” Berry said, “as a health and safety issue.”


Allocations from the fund are meant to rotate among the Dell City, Sierra Blanca and Fort Hancock school district, but until last year, there had been a number of years when Dell City superintendents had not been aware of the fund, and the district had not receiving its portion. Berry said commissioners may change the allocation system, so that at the end of each year, the money in the fund is split evenly among the three districts.


Also at last week's meeting, Kayla Hughes made a presentation to school board members about her proposal for a new after-school gymnastics program in the 2020-2021. Hughes presently works at the district as a substitute teacher, and, when she's not subbing, as an assistant at the library. But she's planning to take up a teaching position next school year.


Hughes told school board members she has experience as both a gymnast and a gymnastics coach, having taken high-school gymnastics teams to state competitions in the two years that she coached them.


“It's my passion,” she said, “and it's a passion I hope to bring to the school.”


She said that gymnastics can contribute to students' lives in multiple ways – in developing flexibility, which is “good for overall health,” in building coordination and body awareness and in helping students gain confidence. She said gymnastics is a “gateway sport to other sports.”


“They see the direct connection between their hard work and results,” Hughes said. “And they develop the skill of performing in front of people in a high-pressure situation.”


Gymnastics would be an after-school program, an extracurricular activity, she said, and not a sport. To launch the program, Hughes would need equipment – foam maps, bars and beams, a small trampoline – which she estimated would cost less than $10,000. The school board was not asked to take action on the matter at Thursday's meeting, but could revisit the issue in the months to come.


Hughes said she hoped to begin the program in the spring of 2021.


Contreras said it would be a great addition at the school.


“I would love to roll this out in the fall, rather than the spring,” Contreras said, “but I don't want Ms, Hughes to take on too much, when she'll also be starting as first-year teacher.”


The school board also approved the school calendar for the 2020-2021 school year. Classes are scheduled to begin Aug. 10. There have been no major changes to holidays and vacations from the current year. But the number of total instructional days for students will increase – from 173 this year, to 180 in 2020-2021. This increase triggers additional state funding, that Dell City ISD can use to cover the cost of summer school. Cervantes told school board members that, this year, there had been a number of professional development days for teachers, when classes had not taken place. The number of those professional development days will be cut next year, to meet the threshold of 180 days of classroom instruction.