Education

BUCKHOLTS — During a discussion on school safety amid the coronavirus crisis, four Buckholts school trustees didn’t wear masks at their public meeting Monday evening.

The mask less trustees — Ricky McCall, Margaret Green, Leslie Lorenz and Christopher Marrs — discussed the challenge of balancing student safety with the realities of a rural school district as many children lack internet access for remote learning.

When it comes to masks, Green voiced her opposition to a mandate for students and staff.

“Where (the rules) says face coverings will be required for students K-12, that is not a law,” Green said. “I keep seeing these signs on doors saying it’s the law, (but) the Legislature and Congress have not passed a law saying we have to do that. These mandates….probably aren’t even legal from judges and mayors. If you have ever been in a classroom, it is going to be impossible.”

“What is going to happen is you are going to have dirty little masks dropped all over the place, which are much germier than if I didn’t have a mask,” Green said.

All Milam County schools will begin classes Aug. 17 but — despite the best of planning — infections will happen, Milam County Judge Steve Young said Tuesday when he talked about education during COVID-19.

Milam County has at least 293 COVID-19 cases, with 250 recoveries, Young said, adding that one person is being treated in a Temple hospital.

At one point during the Buckholts ISD meeting, nine people, including the trustees, were clustered together as they discussed a tax abatement for planned solar farm in Milam County. Superintendent Joe Oliver periodically wore a mask, but did not for most of the meeting.

The board discussed possible problems the district expects to face as school starts. One of the main problems discussed, a lack of internet and infrastructure for students to attend a remote class from home, is currently being felt by most school districts in the rural county.

Young said he knows the school districts have worked hard to get ready for virtual classes, but also knows they need help to purchase technology for their students.

“They worked their tails off to get virtual lessons ready,” Young said. “It’s been suggested we use some of the COVID-19 funds to buy Chromebooks.”

Oliver said he and other Milam superintendents have talked extensively with Young. He told the superintendents that he would not force districts to start later.

Oliver said Buckholts ISD planned to start classes on Aug. 17 by offering both online and in-person classes as the state requires.

District officials sent out a survey to families to find out their preferences for online or in-person classes.

Oliver said about 55 percent desired in-person classes with 45 percent wanted online learning. He said he expects that number could change as students realize online classes might not be as easy as they were last spring.

Oliver also said the poll might have been skewed since it was sent out online, excluding those who don’t have internet connections.

“We are in a very fluid and flexible world with this virus,” Oliver said. “We could get a call tomorrow that changes (our plans).”

While the district might not be able to easily host online classes, Oliver said he believes the school’s class sizes of 10 students will enable social distancing in large classrooms.

With the upcoming budget for the new fiscal year, the school district is planning on setting aside some funds for the purchase of new technology, Oliver said. While the money would be matched by the state for some purchases, Oliver said, the district might not have enough money in the budget to get all the upgrades they need.

Other Milam County school districts face similar issues.

Officials from Cameron Independent School District said the district will be able to provide some laptops for students, but not every student would be able to receive one. Chromebooks cost about $200 each.

Rockdale ISD said it would need about $180,000 to provide its students with Chromebooks.

Milano ISD officials said they almost have enough of the laptops while Thorndale ISD said they already have enough for each student to take home.

For those students who don’t have internet connections, but still want remote education, the districts will provide them with homework packets that they will return to be graded.

Young said the county is working to get better internet productivity and have hired a different provider.