Video+Gallery+Story: Select EPISD students return to campus; Most continue learning virtually

EPISD on Monday opened learning pods at each of its campuses for a selected group of students, welcoming students back into schools for instruction for the first time since the pandemic began eight months ago.

The learning pod plan fulfills the state mandate that EPISD provide some face-to-face instruction but keeps most of the District’s 54,000 students learning virtually from home.

Only about 2,000 of the 5,000 students that were invited back to campus on Monday accepted the invitation.

Most students were excited to venture inside their campuses gladly observing the required safety protocol for a semblance of normalcy. All students wore masks, got temperature checks, sat socially-distant and hand sanitize regularly.

“It’s exciting to welcome some of our students. We hope to bring more kids in as the conditions get better,” said interim superintendent Vince Sheffield, who visited a handful of campuses today. “Safety is our priority and I’m happy to see all the safety precautions are in place.”

Students selected for the learning pods are still receiving online instruction as their teacher is not on campus. But the learning pods give students more structure and assistance than they might receive at home. Campuses identified students for this program based on extenuating circumstances, excessive absences and failing courses.

“There can be a myriad of reasons for the students to be here,” Sheffield said. “These are the select group of students that need our help most. That’s what we are here for – to provide that service to them.”

At Tom Lea Elementary, principal Michelle Casillas saw the excitement in her students’ eyes this morning. Many were eager to return to the Northeast campus and maybe see some friends. She had a variety of students returning including English learners and others struggling with online learning.

“One little girl walked in the school and said ‘the school looks different but I’m happy to be here,’” Casillas said. “The kids are here and ready to learn and we’re ready to serve them. We are looking forward to the health of the city so we can bring more kids in.”

At Tom Lea and other campuses, students sat with dividers on their desks socially distant from their classmates. Headphones on, the students concentrated on their devices but had the extra advantage of nearby help for classwork or technology challenges.

“I really wanted to go back to school because I see a couple of my friends even though I may not be able to talk to them, I can see them,” said Tom Lea fourth grader Emma. “My parents know that I can get off task but now that I’m back to school, I’ll stay on task.”

At Ross Middle, the 42 students opting for face-to-face today sat socially distant in the gym – almost looking as if they were taking the SAT. Administrators and other staff paced up and down the gym answering questions and offering other support to the middle schoolers.

Eighth grader Damian proudly show an AP his Powerpoint assignment to create his presidential platform. “Don’t let them think you are nothing because you’re always something,” it read. He was more than ready to return to school.

“It’s much better than being at home and just being lazy,” he said, excited to show his online classmates that he was actually in the building. “Here you can go to lunch, talk and ask for actual help. People know what they’re talking about here.  You can focus more and you’re having supervision to make sure you are doing your work.”

Story by Reneé de Santos  |  Photos by Leonel Monroy  |  Raymond Jackson – EPISD