Epidemic educational efforts

Heart of Texas educators turn to technology for remote learning during COVID-19 pandemic as Gov. Abbott closes school for remainder of 2019-20 academic year

The bell signaling the end of a class period rings, reverberating off the hallway walls. Instead of students of all ages pouring out of classrooms chattering and grabbing books out of lockers as they go, the school halls stand empty, silent – except for the distant whir of a copier machine.

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School buses stand idle with the closure of in-person classroom learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year (top). Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered schools closed April 17 in an effort to protect the health and safety of Texans through the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic (above).

With the closure of in-person classroom learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year by Texas Governor Greg Abbott April 17 in an effort to protect the health and safety of Texans through the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, all educational institutions across the state were dramatically impacted. School halls will remain empty, and all traditional annual celebrations such as awards banquets, prom and graduation will not be held – at least not before June 1.

While administrators, teachers, parents and students across the Heart of Texas region were hoping to return to school at least for a couple of weeks in May, the reality of needing to shift gears again sunk in Friday after Abbott’s press conference.

But make no mistake, administrators and teachers have done anything but coast since the shutdown began. They continue to navigate the unchartered waters of remote education to provide instruction to their students, albeit through alternative avenues. Parents continue to juggle work with home-schooling their children, but the extended period is taking its toll. Students continue to cope with the confusing situation that home is school now, and they are missing their friends.

While the Texas Education Agency provides a great deal of flexibility regarding grading procedures, assessments and accountability requirements, school districts remain required to provide continued learning for their students. If they cannot show progress, districts stand to lose millions of dollars in state funding.

SHIFTING GEARS

The first couple of weeks – basically an extended Spring Break for many school districts – the education engine ran idle on the surface, slowly shifting into first. From the start, all University Interscholastic League academic and athletic activities were suspended, all livestock shows were closed, and the standardized STAAR testing scheduled to start April 7 was cancelled.

While teachers might have whiteboards, iPads and laptops in the classroom setting at their disposal, they had little or no notice about their schools closing and making the shift to online learning.

The TEA sent resources for remote conferencing, virtual whiteboards, video learning and more as teachers concentrated on review of material, while figuring out how to get information out to parents and students. Parents were mainly concerned about finding supervision for their children as they still went to work. Students enjoyed a more relaxed routine at home without a dress code or having to sit at a desk.

Connecting with students and parents took form as the Texas Education Agency and regional service centers held regular on-line conferences offering solutions on communication, grading, processing student work, answering technical questions on digital technology and privacy concerns.

Then, the Governor’s Executive Order March 31, brought continued closure until April 15. Teachers and administrators changed gears, kicking the remote education engine into more action; and quickly shifted to second gear.

Teachers transferred to adding new learning material. And then adding some more, as students and parents adjusted a bit to the new distant learning situation.

Since March 27, all area schools put programs in place to get free meals to all students, either pick-up or at specified drop off areas in the county. The meal program is an extension of the summer meal program provided by the Texas Department of Agriculture. The Summer Food Service Program is a federally-funded, state-administered program. SFSP reimburses program operators who serve free healthy meals and snacks to children and teens in low-income areas. It was established to ensure that children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session.

REACHING OUT REMOTELY

Reaching out to students and their parents through Facebook messages, phone contact, ZOOM conference calls and Google Classroom became a priority for all school districts across the Heart of Texas region.

Meridian Independent School District coined their hashtag #remoteswarm when connecting to their students. There are teacher drive-bys, story time with teacher Rachael Beaudin, and “We miss you” video messages.

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Meridian ISD Superintendent Kim Edwards and MISD School Board President Payton Wallace.

“What we are missing are the kids,” Meridian Independent School District Superintendent Kim Edwards said about the biggest difference the COVID-19 situation brings to her district. “And I believe they are missing coming to school too.”

Clifton ISD is offering both online and printed assignments, depending on their own preference. Any #TeamCISD student without internet access or spotty internet access has the option of completing printed assignments, taking a picture of the answer documents and emailing it to their teacher or returning the completed assignment to their campus.

Online work is available to all #TeamCISD students through their Google Classroom platforms and the same work is scanned and printed for anyone requesting a packet. Also, all work is available online for anyone that does not choose to pick up a packet but wants a copy of the assignments.

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Clifton ISD Superintendent Andy Ball

“The biggest challenge has been completely changing our teaching and learning format from face-to-face instruction to a home-based learning format,” Clifton ISD Superintendent Andy Ball said. “Our #TeamCISD students, teachers, administrators and staff have done an outstanding job making the adjustment in such a short period of time.

“The hardest part for everyone is not having the personal contact and interaction with our #TeamCISD students and families. Although it is definitely not the ideal situation, now that we have the remote learning process setup, we will be able to continue as long as we need to.”

SOCIOECONOMIC DIVIDE

There is widespread concern that school closures are expected to widen the digital divide – the divide separating those who have internet and those who do not. In Bosque County, there is a high rate of socio-economically disadvantaged children.

The range of students receiving reduced cost or free meals is between 54.5 and 80.2 percent. While some members of the family might have a cell phone, these economically disadvantaged families sometimes do not have a computer and a printer. And even if their school could offer laptops on loan, the family might not have internet. Or they live and area in the county where internet service is unavailable.

Additionally, there often are not enough devices to accommodate the different kids in the different school levels. Public libraries in Clifton and Meridian have some work stations which are often used by students, but the libraries are closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Meridian ISD, the administration therefore decided to focus on providing printed materials for their students. About 25 percent of the MISD parents want the material scanned in and sent by email.

“No internet, no problem,” Edwards said explaining the decision. “We want all our students to receive the same instructional material.”

At Clifton ISD, all #TeamCISD students in grades 3-12 have access to a school Chromebook, if they choose to use it. High school students already had Chromebooks at their disposal, taking them off campus daily.

At both Meridian and Clifton, teachers are checking up on the students by phone and keeping logs. Reaching out personally to monitor progress, they hope to catch the struggling student early. Up until now, Ball has not received notice of any specific #TeamCISD students having trouble keeping up.

“The work load is different, not more,” Edwards said about the impact on the district’s teachers. “It is working well, but it is labor intensive.”

TALKING TO A TEACHER

Meridian Elementary School’s First Grade Teacher Robin Baucom shared what her new work day looks like.

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Meridian Elementary School’s First Grade Teacher Robin Baucom.

On April 17 at 8 a.m., Baucom checked emails, the Remind program and social media for questions from parents and/or students and responded to them. At 9 a.m., she had a meeting with MES Principal Jamie Leinhauser. At 10 a.m., the first grade teacher made revisions to the learning packages for the next week based on parent feedback.

Baucom then went on to assemble the packages and deliver them to the school for students to pick up. This process is orchestrated so there are always less than five teachers at the school at one time. While she was at the school, she picked up completed works – while wearing protective gloves – and started grading. After 3 p.m., she once again checked and answered emails, and made phone calls to parents.

“It has been amazing to me to watch our administration, my colleagues, all support staff, our families adapt so quickly to world that we have never seen before,” Baucom said. “Our administration has been so solid throughout this process that there has been no rocking of the boat.”

She believes this leadership has gone a long way to keeping everybody’s stress levels down.

“As teachers, we teach,” Baucom said. “We know our subject, our kids and have our instructional environment in the class room. That all went away March 23.”

And Governor Abbott’s announcement on April 17 that school s would remain closed through the remainder of the school year dealt another huge blow to the teachers.

“We were thinking we would see our students again... that we could bring closure to their school year,” Baucom said. “We put our hearts and souls into the children we serve. They are a part of us. We have been experiencing sadness and loss since the announcement. I can't imagine how the children feel.

“I am so thankful for the families that have shared their lives with us on social media. It is great to see them and how they are making their way through all of this.”

EDUCATIONAL EXPERIMENT

Teachers want to do what is right, effective and helpful going forward in this massive educational experiment. As educational plans for the rest of the year went out the window, professional development regarding digital learning tools and communication technology was revved up.

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Meridian High School Principal Kristi Kinney shows the learning package drop off boxes at Meridian Elementary School.

On top of it all, teachers needed to figure out what was working for the different families they are guiding through the challenges of remote learning. Every week, they have evolved a bit more, adjusting lessons, scaling down the material so it is manageable for families. And to identify which students and their parents might need extra support.

In the first grade, students are in the process of learning a lot of fundamentals, translating the letters and numbers they learned in Kindergarten to reading and math. But they rely heavily on having the material read out loud to them; a task which now lies with the parents.

And in the coming weeks, the quantity of assignments will only have to increase as the students are expected to reach the bare minimum level of learning at the end of their grade level.

Baucom is concerned about how much they will be behind when they start the next grade level.

She reiterates the importance of student interaction in the classroom – kids see other kids’ responses and react to them in a supported environment, where teachers have control over their attention. Teachers do a lot of socio-emotional teaching too during a school day.

“The kids are going to the next grade and they will have to be ready,” Baucom said. “It is up to us to give them the best basics going forward.”

And with us, she means teachers and parents alike. During this last couple of weeks, she has become a lot closer with the students families as they “co-teach.” And she recognizes the frustration some might be having regarding their efforts to motivating their children to do school work.

“In the classroom there is always a level of peer pressure, of competition that helps kids want to do better,” Baucom said.

A PARENT’S PERSPECTIVE

While some parents are overwhelmed with the task of teaching, some parents like Leigh Gilbert in Meridian are enjoying spending extra time involved in their children’s education. Gilbert has some experience as a pre-K teacher before she became a “stay-at-home” mom. She has four school-age children – a seventh, fourth, second and pre-schooler.

“So far it has been pretty smooth,” Gilbert said. “They have been able to get through the material on their own.”

Sometimes, Gilbert’s second-grader will need some guidance on what to do next. The main difference from going to school is that they are missing friends, especially her fourth-grader.

The schedule is pretty relaxed according to Gilbert. But the day does have a fixed routine – breakfast, morning chores, school work until it is done, and then the children play outside most of the time. Maybe as the amount of work increases, the schedule might be stricter.

“I love having my kids home,” Gilbert said. “I’m sad they are missing their friends, but I’m happy that they are interacting more with each other.”

SUPPLEMENTAL RESOURCES

The Meridian ISD website offers supplemental material to enhance the learning materials sent home with the students. But for parents without pedagogical background, filtering through extra educational resources themselves can be overwhelming.

“We at TEA and educators all over the state of Texas are working how to most effectively support and proved that support to parents, who ware in normal times a child’s first teacher,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a video communiqué April 14. “As we are all struggling with this new educational reality of teaching our kids in our homes with both parents doing the support of the kiddos and teachers supporting them remotely.”

As much as children need love and affection, Morath stressed the importance of structure during the day and to set up a set schedule with dedicated blocks for meal times, play time and one that focuses on academics.

“It makes the kids feel calmer,” Morath said.

SPECIAL EDUCATION DILEMMA

Special education students – possessing physical and learning disabilities – represent a student group vulnerable even under the best conditions. Under these extraordinary COVID-19 conditions with the added confusion that home is school and school is home, this group could suffer long term effects without their school routine, without a structured day, without their different therapies and specialized guidance.

Many Texas school districts are scrambling to figure out how to provide for these students with individualized programs. While some parts of an evaluation need to happen face-to-face, how to offer services like physical therapy over video and how to prevent severe delays in evaluating students remains a dilemma.

Meridian ISD governs the Bosque County Education Cooperative for all Bosque County schools, except Clifton and Valley Mills. In total, this involves over 100 students with varying special needs, from speech therapy alone to including auditory therapy, occupational and physical therapy and more.

The Special Education teachers not only work closely with their students, but with their classroom teachers as well. While coordinating the different special therapies a child might need, teachers have been communicating with parents through Zoom and on cell phones.

NOT AS FUN AS IT SOUNDS

The novelty of distance learning in the digital age might seem like fun for students at first. But learning by sitting still and passively listening, quietly watching a video, clicking through presentations or reading documents online is solitary and dull. It is expected that students already behind in their studies will struggle most and fall further behind.

On top of it all, youth are missing their extra-curricular activities and the oh-so important one-on-one contact with friends and peers.

At the high school level, students are already expected to exercise more autonomy regarding their school work – specially students involved in extra-curricular activities used to working without continual direct teacher contact.

Then, there’s the group that learns online with dual credit subjects – these are college-level curricula and examinations offered to high school students. And of course, the junior high students have to adapt to a larger extent.

CLASS OF 2020 TAKES THE HIT

Finally, it’s the Class of 2020 that is losing out on celebrating their series of “lasts.” No last UIL academic contests, no more livestock shows to show their final projects, no One-Act Play performances, no spring concerts and no timely graduation. The seniors will not experience any closure of their 12-year primary and secondary school careers.

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Clifton Senior Ella Edmiston and her tennis partner Jenna Herrera were lucky to win their last tournament together.

“When I walked out of school on March 6, I had no idea it would be the last time,” Clifton senior and Band Drum Major Ella Edmiston said. “It’s crazy how everything changed in such a short time.”

The sudden upheaval has taught her not to take things for granted anymore.

She is grateful she was able have a full Marching Band season and to go to State Competition. Band students were also able to compete in a very successful UIL concert and sight reading. And while tennis season was cut short, she and her partner Jenna Herrera ended their run by winning their last tournament together. But then again, Edmiston felt she had a good chance to advance to regional competition this year. That opportunity is gone forever.

But Edmiston is sad that she won’t be able to wear her beautiful prom dress at what she sees as the seniors’ last “get together.” In a normal year, seniors only have five class periods after Spring Break, giving them a chance to work, or hang out with their classmates. That is what Edmiston is missing most, the chance to hang out with “the team.” Connecting is now through Facetime instead of in person.

“We don’t get the normal finish line,” Edmiston said. “Normally, the last weeks of school are about being acknowledged for our accomplishments. We don’t get that this year. But I’m sure we will get our rewards later on in life.”

Edmiston is going to Texas A&M University in the fall to major in Biomedical Sciences, hoping to become a nurse practitioner in the future.

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Clifton Cub Marching Band Drum Major Ella Edmiston

COMMENCEMENT EXERCISES ON HOLD

While no one wants to totally cancel the traditional graduation, how and when commencement exercises could take place remain very much up in the air.

“This has been a difficult time for everyone involved,” Ball said. “I’m heartbroken for all of our #TeamCISD students, teachers and staff and specifically for our #TeamCHS seniors. Once we have guidance, we will do everything we can to help them finish their career at Clifton High School in a special way. “In a time like this, I’m very appreciative that we are blessed to have the leadership and support of our #TeamCISD School Board, as well as our campus teams and leaders, and to live in a community and school district as flexible and understanding as Clifton has been.”

For the Class of 2020, their ranking and Grade Point Average will be calculated by the end of the fourth six-week school period. Students use to doing a spurt at the end of a school year certainly will be negatively impacted by that change.

During the COVID-19 closures student will receive “incomplete,” “unsatisfactory/fail,” or “satisfactory/pass” grade. Because “COVID” time does not count in their GPA, eighth -grade students taking Algebra I are affected.

TEA says closures have made it impossible for the agency to measure school performance as it normally does.

“While we continuously work to ensure our A-F accountability system paints an accurate picture of school performance, these unprecedented circumstances have forced all of us to change and adapt,” Morath said in a press release.

Therefore, Texas public schools won’t receive an accountability rating this year. Instead, they’ll receive the label “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster,” comparable to school districts impacted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

HARD AT WORK

Whereas hours may have changed because not all school staff members are on campuses daily, they are still hard at work.

The CISD School Board approved a resolution at the March board meeting that allows the district to continue to pay all employees for days missed due to COVID-19.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 school closures bring serious challenges, but there are also opportunities to be found. Those able to adapt will be able to transform and build back better.

Educators are looking to other educators as well as trusted sources to help navigate the unchartered waters of alternative learning tools and finding solutions for day-to-day challenges the COVID-19 situation brings. Edwards praised the excellent support received from the Region 12 education service center. The administration has regular conference calls with Morath’s offices.

“We are working closer with other area superintendents,” Edwards said. “We’re all in the same boat. And when we walk back in school, we know that COVID-19 will be dealt with for months to come.”

THE NEW NORMAL

Forced to innovate and experiment with online tools, districts and teachers are finding out what works and what doesn’t, surely as a result, a new mix of face-to-face and digital learning will emerge.

And last but certainly not least, when parents instantly became their children’s teacher, the majority found renewed respect and appreciation for teachers, and realized their important role in society. And teachers found appreciation for parents doing their utmost to cope with the situation and support their children’s schools.

Edwards really wanted the schools to be back to regular tuition, even if it was only for one week.

“We need to keep training the kids athletically and academically – train their brains and bodies again,” Edwards said.

In the meantime, Edwards assures students and their parents that prom, annual awards banquets and graduation will all take place; the question is when.

“We have been told we will receive guidance on graduation activities and what will be allowed,” Ball said as the COVID-19 situation continues impacting education on all levels.. “Decisions will be made at that time and will be based on any local, state and/or federal restrictions we may be under, as well any guidance we receive from the state.”

“Our #TeamCISD students, families, community, teachers, staff and administrators make a great team and have worked very well together to do what is best for our #TeamCISD students.”

Preparations for all these activities will kick the school staff into fourth gear. Edwards believes the exceptional situation everybody was thrown into will make everybody more unified when all is said and done.

“The school supports the home, the home supports the school,” Edwards said. “Stay well, stay safe, stay blessed and stay home.” And in keeping with the Meridian ISD school mascot “Stay Awesome.”

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS & courtesy of LEIGH GILBERT of LOVELEIGH PHOTOGRAPHY

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