Fort Bend, other Houston-area ISDs suspend classes in Texas over coronavirus, prepare for online learning

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Many Texas schools in the Houston area are closing because of the coronavirus. Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Some of Texas' largest school districts, many in the Houston area, announced Thursday they would extend their spring breaks and work on contingency plans to transition hundreds of thousands of students and teachers to online learning, due to concerns about the new strain of coronavirus.

Fort Bend Independent School District will suspend classes for at least two weeks starting March 16 and require essential staff to get training in online instruction, in case extended school closures become necessary due to future outbreaks of the disease, which is called COVID-19.

Fort Bend County had the first confirmed case of the disease outside the federal quarantine site at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio. In the greater Houston area, 17 people in total, including six in Fort Bend, have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

More than 10 school districts in the Houston area, including Cypress Fairbanks ISD, Conroe ISD, Klein ISD and Humble ISD, also announced suspending classes.

Katy ISD postponed classes, campus events, field trips, student trips and competitions starting Friday through next Sunday. If the closure is extended, "instruction will resume via online virtual learning," according to the district's website. "Teachers will be prepared for online instruction over the next week should that become necessary," the site said.

As the number of school districts canceling classes ramps up, not every one has the capacity to immediately pivot to offering classes online. Experts say that for most school districts, switching to online learning is easier said than done, requiring training for students and teachers to learn how to use the digital system, especially if it's brand new.

In addition to training teachers, districts also have to contend with the fact that not all their students have access to the internet or have computers at home.

"Now is not the time to introduce something new," said Jennifer Bergland, government relations director for the Texas Computer Education Association. "You wouldn't all of a sudden say, 'Okay, we're going to launch this, unless it was something that went for a very long time."

When H1N1 spread across the world about a decade ago, Bergland was the chief technology officer in Bryan ISD, near College Station, responsible for creating a contingency plan for online learning. Then, just as now, districts are on a "continuum of digital readiness," she said.

Districts that plan ahead are most likely to see a seamless transition. Dallas ISD officials sent out a letter Thursday, in advance of next week's spring break, with a contingency plan in case the vacation is extended for a lengthy amount of time, in which students in all grades would begin "at-home learning." All middle and high school students would be temporarily provided with a laptop or tablet, while preschool and elementary school students will get a resource bag with textbooks, papers and pencils.

A website, in English and Spanish, offers online courses and other resources. Teachers are expected to upload assignments and activities daily, and students will be responsible for logging in and completing the assignments.

The eagerness to go digital could last long beyond the current health crisis. Back in 2009, Bergland said, principals who were forced to switch to digital learning realized that they could pursue similar opportunities during the regular school year. "I know that school districts are much more prepared than they were in 2009," she said.