How schools may reopen this fall—one educator’s thoughts

Dr. Jose VillarrealPolicy makers, school committees, and school administrators are all evaluating the best options for re-opening schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. There are a lot of options on the table from 100% remote learning to hybrids of days in and out of the building. Prepared Parents recently spoke with Dr. José Manuel Villarreal, vice president at Epiphany Prep Charter School in Escondido, California about how his school responded to the academic and personal needs of  their 757 students in Transitional Kindergarten through 8th grade. Ninety-five percent of the kids who attend are Latino and 95% are low income.

Recently all the members of the Epiphany Prep community completed surveys about their remote learning experience. Parents, students, and teachers alike agreed that: 

  • They maintained connections with each other during the past few months;
  • School-to-home communication with helpful; and
  • Students learned new material while distance learning.

We’ve included an edited transcript of our interview below.

Prepared Parents: Tell us about your school.

Dr. Villarreal: We serve a very economically depressed immigrant community in Escondido. We are working to be supportive in any way we can during this time. We closed school on March 16th. There’s an anxiousness to come back. I get that. Parents want their kids in school so they can go back to work, but it was a no brainer to stay closed for the remainder of the year.

Prepared Parents: How did you prepare for the shut down?

Dr. Villarreal: Our primary concerns about closing school were: care, communications, and consistency. We started planning two weeks before school closed, not knowing what might happen. We had to wait for our local school district – our authorizer – to make the decision. As soon as they did, we immediately jumped into action preparing packets of work to last for two to three weeks. We did not want education for our students to stop. That was the consistency.

Prepared Parents: Once you’d communicated the plan, what did the school do to meet your students’ needs?

Dr. Villarreal: We started an immediate campaign to serve food starting the first day. Instead of calling it a feeding program, we called it the “Feeding the Hearts and Minds” campaign. Families came to school and received a packet of work for the child and the fresh food they’d normally get in school. We went on to expand the food program –  it’s called Eagle Eats. I would go out and deliver enough food for the week to our most in-need families. It was also a chance for a mental health check of parents. When we were calling folks, they started telling us about their situations, like not being able to get to school to pick up food. “How do I feed my children?”

We started taking food to 8 families and went up to 30. It took 4 hours to distribute food. The San Diego Food Bank gave us a backpack program with rice, beans, and canned foods so we’ve added that to our boxes. 

One of our teachers donated $200 from her stimulus check to have a local market bring vegetables and fruit that we distributed. And we did a GoFundMe campaign for our Friday pantry. We were up to almost $9000 for pantry items like pasta, soup, rice, detergent, toothbrushes. 

We’ve served well beyond 530,000 meals since March 16th going from 30 miles to 80 80 miles in one day – from 8 residences to dropping off at 2330. 

Prepared Parents: What are some of the other ways you helped  families?

Dr. Villarreal: Because we stayed in contact with our families, our counselors could point to the adults who were having some really stressful situations and just needed to vent. Our counselors and our school psychologist were all also engaged. They  worked until 7:00 at night to try to identify where our students were – if there were problems at home or violence in the home. Luckily, we were not hearing about incidents of violence. The issues are economic. 

Prepared Parents: What does learning look like by the end of the school year?

Dr. Villarreal: 90% of our students were online. The rest were doing packets. We’ve gave out 400 Chromebooks and 80 hotspots. Imagine you’re a first-generation parent here or an immigrant and trying to manage the language and figuring out how technology works. Our daily shows were helping make our families feel at ease. One of our teachers told this story on the YouTube show: “when I started this distance learning, I was an old school teacher. Now, I’m a new school teacher because I’m able to use technology.” So, education is changing.

Prepared Parents: What are your plans for this fall?

Dr. Villarreal: My prediction is we’ll still be distance learning through the fall. Escondido has the 2nd or 3rd highest cases in the county and starting to climb more. We’re in a tough space right now. Every time I hear superintendents talk about wanting to open, I don’t understand the urgency. Let’s just wait a little longer to figure this out. With no vaccine and the flu season approaching from October to January, it’s still a problem and infections may occur.  

I did a mock classroom set-up and at most we can fit twelve students six feet apart with one teacher. In our lunch area, it’s twenty-four students in the inside area. We host 757 students, so to imagine that we can come back, there’s just no way. Our families want their kids in school so they can go to work. We’ll know more later this month about what the state recommends.

At this point, we have established five models of schooling with many variations within each. They are:

  1. Distance Learning, with Specialized Groups – 50-200 per day
  2. Hybrid, all students on campus one day per week, up to 200 per day
  3. Hybrid, all students on campus two days per week, up to 400 per day
  4. Hybrid, all students on campus four days per week, half day rotations 
  5. Full face-to-face return, with guidelines and protections

Our preference is to ensure that we are using option 1 and return in February. Preliminary data has indicated that most of our employees, staff and students are in favor of this approach. 

Prepared Parents: What are you taking away from this experience?

Dr. Villarreal: Our staff is phenomenal. They show up every day at 6:30am to hand out food with me. This is what we signed up for.