Leaving remote learning: Vaccinations helping kids return to class

·4 min read

Dec. 5—HARLINGEN — The opening of the COVID-19 vaccination program to children is leading more students to leave their home-based online learning courses for the classroom.

Now, with the country's COVID-19 vaccination program opening to children 5 to 11 years old, more students are leaving the district's online program to return to class, Brianna Vela Garcia, the Harlingen school district's spokeswoman, said.

"Families are finally more comfortable having their children back in the classroom, especially now that vaccines are being offered to children 5 and up — plus the value of in-person learning," she said.

Months of remote learning

Since the coronavirus outbreak here in March 2020, school districts have offered online learning to students whose parents wanted to keep them home.

In Harlingen, the district opened its 2020-2021 school year with about 60 percent of its students enrolled in its remote learning program, Vela Garcia said.

As the year closed, about 30 percent remained online, she said.

Across much of the Rio Grande Valley, higher percentages of students were enrolling in remote learning classes last year.

Meanwhile, their grades — along with state test scores — were dropping.

"Studies show students do their best learning inside the classroom where teachers can monitor and provide instant feedback," Janie Lopez, a San Benito school board member, stated.

By September, Gov. Greg Abbott was signing Senate Bill 15, funding school districts offering online programs to students through September 2023.

"If a parent chooses to keep their child home to learn, we have a duty to accommodate such learning," Lopez said. "The State Legislature provided a legal framework to provide remote learning services. Our schools received state and federal tax dollars to assist in paying for such programs, including hiring experienced teachers. Student learning is a priority. They are our future and we must not let them down."

Return to the classroom

But this year, fewer students were enrolling in remote learning programs.

Instead, they were returning to the classroom.

In Harlingen, 90 students remain in the program out of the district's 1,700 enrollment, Vela Garcia said.

"Things are significantly back to normal this year," Gerry Fleuriet, the school board's president, said. "The vast majority of the students in the Harlingen school district are in-person learning. They're in the classroom and the programs we have are thriving. For the small number of students participating in virtual learning, we are trying to make that as meaningful a learning opportunity as possible."

In San Benito, the numbers of students enrolled in the district's remote learning programs have dropped in half.

Since October, the program's enrollment's dropped from 184 to 85 students, with 56 of those in kindergarten to fifth grade.

"The parents would rather have them in class rather than in online learning," school board member Ariel Cruz said.

After months of remote learning, the district's STAAR test scores have dropped.

"We have profound gaps in learning," Cruz said, referring to last year's test results. "They were lower than we would want."

Vaccination programs

For months, school districts have been vaccinating students to get them back into the classroom.

In Harlingen, Josh Ramirez, the city's health director, estimates his office has helped area districts vaccinate "thousands" of students since June.

As part of the program, he's targeting students taking online courses to help get them back in class.

"We are encouraging them to come and get vaccinated so they can get back to campus, just like we encourage all citizens to get the vaccine so we can get back as normal as possible," he said.

After federal health officials opened the vaccination program to children 5 to 11 in late October, Ramirez began going onto campuses to vaccinate students.

So far, he said, he's vaccinated 531 students between 5 and 11 during clinics.

Last month, he helped the district vaccinate more than 300 students at Long and Travis elementary schools, he said.

In San Benito, Thomas Garza, a pharmacist at his family-owned Medicine Shoppe, has been working with the school district since late April to vaccinate students at San Benito High School and the district's three middle schools.

Now, he's helped open vaccination clinics at the high school and Riverside Middle School.

"We've had a very positive turnout," he said.

Safety first

Meanwhile, the district continues to work to offer students a safe learning environment, Superintendent Nate Carman stated.

In August, the district mandated students, employees and visitors wear masks in its buildings and buses, he stated, noting "digital contactless, touchless thermometers" are taking their temperature checks.

Inside classrooms, officials are installing "desk shields," he added.

"The safety and health of our students and staff is paramount," Carman stated. "We greatly appreciate our parents' patience and understanding during these challenging times and we are thankful that they have entrusted their children's education to us."

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