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Dell City School Board Addresses Impacts of School Closure

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The Dell City ISD school board held its monthly meeting – via video- and teleconferencing – last Thursday (April 23), and coping with school closure, which has been imposed statewide because of the coronavirus pandemic, was the focus of discussion.


Among other topics, school board members and administrators discussed how grades and class rankings will be calculated amidst the closure, and how to hold graduation ceremonies while maintaining social distance.


Supt. Ruben Cervantes told school board members that the Dell City School community is showing resilience in the midst of unprecedented circumstances. He said teachers, students and families – and local businesses and community members – are collaborating to help learning continue from home.


“We're getting better at it,” Cervantes said. “It's new for the teachers, and we know it's overwhelming for parents and kids, but the communication is there now.”


Graduation is scheduled for May 29. Cervantes said he and other school staffers have considered two possibilities for the commencement ceremony.


One possibility, proposed by Coach and Ag teacher Chuck Wilson, is to hold graduation outdoors, at Cougar Field. Parents and community members would stay in their vehicles – the school has an FM transmitter, and attendees could tune in and listen to the ceremony through their car radios.


The second option is to hold graduation in Cougar Gym, the usual location. An executive order from the governor currently prohibits gatherings of 10 or more, but Cervantes said Gov. Greg Abbott may modify that order in the coming weeks, to allow for gatherings of up to 50 people. Graduation could only be held in the gym if the governor made that change. The school would allow each of the eight graduating seniors to invite two people to the ceremony – and a few school staffers would be in the gym to conduct the event. Graduation would be “live-streamed,” so that other family and community members could watch at home.


Cervantes said senior class sponsors would be visiting with members of the Class of 2020, and their families, in the coming days, to see which of the alternatives they preferred. School officials will make a decision during the week of May 11 on how graduation will be held.


The school board also voted to modify the district's grading policy, as a result of COVID-19 and school closure.


The school year is broken up into six six-week periods, and, under district policy, GPAs and class rankings are typically calculated based on students' grades at the end of the fifth six-week period.


However, in-class instruction this year stopped at the end of the fourth six-week period, and students have been studying at home since then. Cervantes said that, after a lengthy review, he and Principal Carlos A. Contreras recommended the policy be changed – so that, with a few exceptions, students' spring semester grades would be based on their standing at the end of the fourth six weeks.


Students who were struggling or had failed at the end of the fourth six-weeks can bring their grades up during this period of home instruction, but no student's overall grades will be lowered based on their performance since school closure, Cervantes said.


Cervantes said he and Contreras agreed that, in terms of grades or class rankings, it would be unfair to hold students accountable for their academic performance during this difficult time. He noted that some students did not have internet access right away – and that the closure has had a “big impact on education.”


“We know its overwhelming for parents and kids,” Cervantes said. “The parents are becoming teachers themselves – it's a very difficult time for everyone. We don't want to penalize the kids.”


Some districts have gone with a “pass/ fail” system, but Cervantes said it's unclear how colleges and universities might interpret a pass/ fail grade. He and Contreras agreed giving students a number grade was preferable.


The board approved the changes to the grading policy by a unanimous vote.


Last week's school board meeting was held via the video- and teleconferencing platform Zoom. It was the board's second “remote” meeting – though two board members were present with Cervantes at the superintendent's office.


On April 17, Gov. Abbott announced that all schools in Texas would remain closed for the remainder of the school year.


In his report to school board members, Principal Contreras talked about the steps the school is taking to insure learning continues during the school closure.


Contreras said he has been impressed by students' grades and the quality of their work during the closure. He said all of the seniors are on track to graduate, and that “all elementary students are on pace to go to the next level.”


Teachers contact students regularly, and teachers are available each school day from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Parents are encouraged to communicate with teachers by phone or email, or to contact Contreras, or Cervantes, if they have trouble reaching teachers.


There will be no final exams or STAAR or other state tests this year – but Contreras said Dell City students were on course to improve their performance on the state testing. Contreras said he and the teachers are already preparing for next school year, and to address any gaps in learning that may exist because of the prolonged closure.


A critical element of improving home instruction has been the extension of internet service to Dell City School students. In the days immediately following school closure, in March, Dell Telephone Cooperative stepped up to extend internet service to Cougar families who lacked it – and Cervantes told school board members that, through a variety of technologies, free internet was extended to 18 families. The families will have the option to keep the service if they wish, when the closure and the free service ends.


Cervantes said Dell Telephone's donation of the service meant significant savings for the district – and he thanked DTC General Manager Denny Bergstrom, DTC staffer Joel Muñiz and school Business Manager Melanie Gentry for making the project happen so quickly.


“Thanks to Dell Telephone, all our students have internet access,” Cervantes said, “and we can get assignments to them. We thank them for that – and for not wasting any time in doing it.”


The school continues to serve free meals during the closure – with breakfast and lunch being served together from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. each weekday. Cafeteria staffers Lupita Marsical and Leonor Garcia prepare the meals and deliver them to families curbside. Cervantes told school board members about 50 breakfasts and 50 lunches are being distributed every day – and he thanked Mariscal and Garcia for the work they're doing.


In other business, Contreras and Cervantes told school board members that the district will be conducting its own trainings and teacher professional development next year, rather than contracting with the regional Education Service Center in El Paso for those trainings. Contreras said that he is acquiring materials for a “professional development” library at the school, and that he and School Counselor Tesha Czubinski would lead professional development next year. The switch will also save the district money.


In another money-saving move, Cervantes said the district has shifted to “teletherapy” for speech therapy and other special-education services for next year. The move to teletherapy began before school closure, and it will save on fuel and other expenses the district previously paid for therapists to travel to Dell City.