PHARR, Texas – High school teachers everywhere would prefer to be teaching their students in the classroom but for now they are having to do the next best thing. 

The coronavirus has led to distance learning, with the teachers and students staying at home and connecting via the internet.

In the Rio Grande Valley that is the way it has to be for the next four weeks. And online classes may have to continue beyond that if health experts feel it is still not safe for students and teachers to return to campus.

Vanguard Academy is embracing the new teaching landscape. The public charter school asked parents to swing by the school on Thursday, Friday or Saturday of this week to pick up school supplies for their children. A backpack was given out for each student full of textbooks and a chrome book. Hotspots, for those that need them, will be arriving soon.

“It has been very hectic. We have already distributed about 800 chrome books and text books and student supplies,” said Maria Farias, principal of Vanguard’s Rembrandt Secondary School in Pharr at the end of day on Thursday. 

With around 1,200 students at the school, that means about two-thirds of the parents came along on day one. 

“I have seen parents driving through very happy,” Farias said. “The students are saying hello to their teachers, those teachers that volunteered to help out. They are very happy, they are greeting us and thanking us.”

Farias has been principal of Rembrandt Secondary for three years. She says teaching is in her blood. “I just want to teach the kids, educationally and emotionally,” she said.

Farias said it goes without saying that the students miss their teachers and vice versa.

Asked if high school students can get a good education experience through online learning, Farias said: 

“No one will miss out. We have planned accordingly. The teachers have gotten very busy, creating virtual lessons, making sure we are not missing any students. I am very confident they will be successful.”

Asked to elaborate, Farias said: “We are eager to see the students, to greet them face to face, when it is safe again. But for now, this is how we have to do it. Our teachers will reach out to them. Connect with the parents and the students. The teachers will have that connection, everything will be fine. For now we are glad we will be seeing their bright faces on the computer screen.”

As for the format, Farias said teachers will interact live with the students for 30 minutes before asking the students to do 20 minutes of work independently. Students can see the teacher but not their classmates. However, they can hear them and speak to them. “When students see the teachers face, everything lights up,” Farias said.

As has been documented by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and others, the Valley is one of the least “wired” areas of the country. Tens of thousands of families either cannot afford an internet connection at home or live in an area where no wifi service is available. 

Farias said in the case of Vanguard about 40 percent of the students lack internet connectivity in their home. In other school districts that statistic is much higher.

“We are waiting for a shipment of hundreds of hotspots to be delivered. We are writing down the names of students that need the hotspots and we will call them when we receive them,” she said.

Vanguard Academy starts its new school year on Monday. This weekend students can get ready by going to the school district’s website and clicking on the virtual meet the teacher icon. 

“The teachers have a message for the students, letting them know what the expectations are. The students can also meet my administrative team, my counselors, myself. We are all there. We are delivering a little speech, a pep speech. We are looking forward to this new year.”

Vanguard Academy is growing, with over 500 additional students starting this new school year. Asked what is causing the growth in demand, Farias said: “I think we try to do as much as we can to help them. And prayer. Our prayer, our faith that everything will be okay, eventually, has a lot to do with it. We have an emphasis on student-led prayer.”

Vanguard is known as a fine arts institution but in recent years, Farias said, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs have proven popular.

“We have grown. We have more students graduating with an associate’s degree, more sports, more activities. And we are doing STEM. My school is an early college high school and T-STEM. We have a cohort going the T-STEM route and another cohort that is going through the early college high school route.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Maria Farias, principal of Vanguard Academy’s Rembrandt Secondary School.

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