MAY 6, 2020 — With the summer months quickly approaching, communities across the nation are staring down myriad uncertainties regarding education: How will schools operate going forward? How will probable budget cuts affect K–12 schools and higher education institutions? How can we better support the needs of students, teachers and their families, especially those already struggling through inequities?
Six of UTSA’s top education experts addressed these questions and more Wednesday in an interactive panel discussion called What Might K-12 Education Look Like in the Fall?
The panelists who participated in this third of a series of Community Conversations were moderator Margo DelliCarpini, dean of the College of Education and Human Development and vice provost for strategic educational partnerships; Michael Villarreal, director of the Urban Education Institute; Ann Marie Ryan, professor and chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching; Vanessa Sansone, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies; Heather Trepal, professor and graduate adviser of record in the Department of Counseling; and Lloyd Potter, professor and director of the Institute for Demographic and Socioeconomic Research.
The panelists spent a significant amount of time answering the conversation’s title question—what might K–12 education look like in the fall? Ryan suggested that a blend of online and on-campus learning could be in store for students in San Antonio. She also pointed to double-shift scheduling used by overcrowded schools—a method in which specific students physically attend schools on certain days or during certain times each weekday—as a model that could be effective.
“We have the skills to figure this out,” she said, noting that various teaching methods have been used throughout history, such as radio lessons during the polio epidemic. “This is what’s comforting to me as a teacher, educator, historian. We’ve got lots to work with.”
UTSA panelists on the future of K–12 education are Margo DelliCarpini, Michael Villarreal, Vanessa Sansone, Heather Trepal, Ann Marie Ryan and Lloyd Potter.
Villarreal said an upcoming survey from the Urban Education Institute will help local officials and educators craft their best plans for the fall. Starting next week researchers will be in the field surveying more than 2,000 students and parents and 1,000 K–12 educators to collect data about their experiences with distance learning, including how living circumstances impact learning, what populations have been most affected and how virtual lesson plans can be improved.
“I’m really, in some ways, excited about what we’re going to learn,” Villarreal said, “because this is an opportunity to reset old practices and assumptions that have not been reevaluated in education.”
The elephant in the virtual chat room, of course, remains the likelihood that in-person school will not resume in the fall. Villarreal was quick to point out that the rolling seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in Bexar County is now higher than it’s ever been. That average isn’t likely to drop with the recent reopening of businesses throughout the state.
Potter also appeared skeptical about in-person classes being held in the fall. He pointed out that school-aged children may not have the capacity—and schools may not have the ability—to maintain proper social distancing. Children who are asymptomatic carriers could present a significant danger to their older family members as well as their immunocompromised classmates.
“How are we going to accommodate that?” Potter asked. “There are a whole range of issues that we’re going to need to manage if we go back to the classroom.” He added that the health concerns attached to physical school attendance will have an especially harsh impact on lower-income households.
Socioeconomic issues were a frequently discussed topic throughout the conversation, since the pandemic has shed light on many disparities that have long existed in the area’s pre-K–12 students. San Antonio has more extreme income equality and a wider digital divide than most American cities. Although area school districts have made tremendous efforts to bridge that gap, thousands of rural and lower-income students in South Texas still lack adequate internet or computer access.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing greater inequities, and if these are not addressed, they will have very negative impacts to our communities that have been denied access, creating an even greater divide,” DelliCarpini said.
For the past three years Sansone has been studying geography’s effect on postsecondary opportunity. In rural areas of South and West Texas, for instance, she has documented the struggles of students who have limited or no access to Wi-Fi, public transportation, bilingual aid or several other resources. She said that changes to policy and institutional organization will go a long way in helping both K–12 and college students navigate those inequities.
“Higher education institutions are going to have to start to think and reimagine the ways that we can serve our students, particularly those that have very little power,” Sansone said.
As schools and higher ed institutions make plans for the fall and beyond, the panelists also gave advice to caregivers turned homeschoolers who are still trying to manage the learning needs of their children—as well as their mental and social health—for the rest of the spring semester. Ryan and Trepal both recommended that parents of students with specific needs should be in frequent contact with school representatives, counselors and the students’ team of teachers.
⇒ Watch the recorded livestream of this Community Conversations event.
Trepal also said that data suggests families across the board are seeing an increase in mental health issues. She offered resources, such as the Bexar County Department of Behavioral Health’s website and the San Antonio Food Bank help line, that can help students and their families weather a “perfect storm” of insecurities heightened by the pandemic, whether it’s regarding food, mental health or domestic violence.
She further acknowledged that schools provide structure, and when that structure is altered, it can affect the sleeping patterns, motivation and interactions in children. “I’ve watched all three of my children struggling in different ways, and I’m an educator and I specialize in counseling,” she admitted, stating that teachers and educators should be thoughtful and compassionate as these adolescents continue to adjust. “Thinking about social and emotional well-being is important as we look at the different diversity of students that we’re serving across San Antonio.”
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