San Marcos CISD school buses, April 22, 2021, at Owen Goodnight Middle School.

As part of its Rattler Reopening Plan, the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District (SMCISD) fully opened its campuses allowing students to return to in-person classes on April 12.

According to SMCISD Executive Director of Communications and Community Relations Andrew Fernandez, students returned to campus for the district's last six weeks to gain an understanding of what next fall will be like and so SMCISD staff could provide encouragement to students before the summer break.

"We know this has been a long year and a tough year for a lot of our students, a lot of our families," Fernandez says. "We wanted to be able to provide resources to students, you know before they headed off to summer, and also just check on them, see how they're doing.”

While this is the district's official return from remote learning, it has been operating with in-person classes since early this year.

“Prior to April 12, we had 65% of our students on campus, district-wide. So, [as] of April 12 we have around 82% of students back on San Marcos CISD campuses," Fernandez says. "The first safety protocol was ensuring our staff was vaccinated; more than 800 of our staff members have received the Moderna vaccination.”

With 1,215 staff members and only a little over 800 vaccinated, nearly 415 have yet to receive a vaccine. According to Fernandez, this is due to a staff member's individual choice. He adds some are pregnant or have tested positive for COVID-19 and remain in the 90-day grace period before they are eligible for vaccination.

"Throughout the rest of the school year, we will still be offering additional vaccination clinics for our staff to receive the shot and still mandating masks for all students and staff throughout all of our San Marcos CISD campuses," Fernandez says.

Despite the return, not all students are required to return back to campus. Instead, they can be issued an exemption that allows them to continue distance learning. Fernandez says students can be exempt through a medical exemption provided by a doctor or because of a parent's medical concerns. Another form of exception is an extenuating circumstance exemption which allows families to fill out a one-page application to justify their students' need for remote learning.

The extenuating circumstance exemption requires a meeting between campus officials and parents who discuss to determine the best learning environment for their students.

Michelle Villalpando, a mother to an 11-year-old Goodnight Middle School student, has struggled with the transition back to in-person classes as her daughter's medical exemption keeps her at distance learning.

Villalpando says with a majority of students back in the classroom, teaching methods are no longer what they used to be when classes were fully remote.

"I did meet with her school principal and the Special Education Coordinator for her school, to express more individual concerns with my daughter's situation, and I had told them that, you know, that there should be some type of correspondence from the teacher, even though they're not providing live instruction," Villalpando says. "There should be some type of, you know, direction as to, 'Okay this is what you're supposed to do for this week', what's due this week and so forth, not just uploading assignments to keep them occupied."

Villalpando says her daughter has become frustrated with the limited help she's received since her teachers now primarily teach in-person and provide only online assignments for remote students. With this ongoing frustration, Villalpando asked her daughter if she thought a decent education was worth the possible health risk.

"I essentially had to tell my daughter, that this was a decision that I needed her to really think about, you know, this decision because if she were to go to campus and if she were to test positive, she would have to be okay with knowing that she would have to prepare for the worst," Villalpando says.

Before Villalpando could decide whether to send her daughter to in-person classes, she was informed via text of multiple COVID-19 cases at Goodnight Middle School. According to the SMCISD COVID-19 dashboard, between April 12-18, seven students and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19 district-wide — the staff member and two out of the seven students were from Goodnight Middle School.

After seeing the growing number of cases at the school, Villalpando and her daughter concluded that her health was the priority. Because of this decision, Villalpando says she understands she and her daughter will have to work harder to ensure her daughter performs well academically and prioritizes her education.

Anne Halsey, a SMCISD school board member and a mother of three SMCISD students, says her children transitioned to remote learning at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her two youngest children returned to school at the beginning of this year while her oldest returned only weeks ago on April 12.

“It's just been an incredibly hard year for everybody, and I think most especially for teachers and for kids,” Halsey says. “What we've asked them to do has just been extraordinary, and I think they've done an incredible amount of work and been incredibly successful given the horribleness of the situation.”

After state lockdowns and being remote for almost a year, Halsey says it's been a hard time, but can already see a difference in her children after returning to school.

"They've all hung in there and done the best they can," Halsey says. "I think definitely for my younger two, being back on campus has been good for them. I feel like it's been safe. My high schooler, also, since she went back. She’s been back for a week and a half. It’s a transition, but I think that it's certainly, I'm seeing an uptick in, sort of just attitude.”

With public vaccination sites available throughout San Marcos, Halsey feels the risks of COVID-19 for herself and her kids have decreased. She adds the community is in a much safer position compared to when the pandemic first started.

"We know more about the virus; we know more about the way that people contract it than we did certainly a year ago. So, we're certainly in a safer place,” Halsey says. “Now, is everything completely safe yet? No, but we're on the road, and I feel like we're at a much better place.”

One of Halsey's biggest concerns is the mental health of students and young adults during this time and how much of the emotional toll they have endured this past year. She adds the district's decision to return to in-person curriculum provides students an emotional boost they will need for summer.

“[There will] likely be another very long summer where we're not doing everything back to totally normal, where there's still some social distancing and some isolation and trying to connect kids with their peers but also with adults,” Halsey says.

At the end of the semester, SMCISD's senior class will have the option to participate in a socially distanced, outdoor commencement ceremony and other events such as prom.

Fernandez believes allowing students to return to campus is beneficial to their social lives and emotional health, however, their safety is always a priority.

“All I can say is, I believe the students are happy to be amongst one another again," Fernandez says. "There's some friends that they haven't seen in over a year, the first time they've seen them outside of a Zoom screen. So, is this a step toward normalcy? Of course. But at the end of the day, what's most important is the safety of our students.”

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