Into the Unknown…

As we begin to wrap-up our school year in Texas, we created an end of year Celebrations Magazine to highlight our student’s accomplishments in lieu of the many awards banquets we were not able to hold due to COVID-19. I began the magazine with this opening line: “It has been an unbelievable year.” And I meant that in every sense of the word. What seems like forever ago was a fall semester for the record books with trips to State in Cross Country, State-Quarterfinals in Volleyball, State Championship in Football, State Finalists Bronze Medalists in Cheer – and that’s just what our kids did in sports. Couple that will multiple students advancing to All-State Band and Choir, a National Merit Commended Scholar, 6 Eagle Scouts, 1 Girl Scout Gold Award and nearly $2 million in scholarships for a graduating class of 85 and you start to get the picture… And on March 6, as we departed for a quick spring break, it all came to a screeching halt.

What our teachers did in those days and weeks to come was nothing short of miraculous. If you haven’t read the South Carolina School Board Member, Ken Buck’s, words on this, they were absolutely on point. We transitioned our entire educational processes to remote learning in a matter of days, purchased devices and internet hotspots for students and started building capacity in all of our people to make online learning work for all. We did it, and in Gunter ISD – like districts across the country, we did it exceedingly well!

But as we start to close the door on 2019-2020, all eyes are on 2020-2021 and it does feel a little like the theme song from Frozen 2 – Into the Unknown. Except we do kind of know what it might look like from articles and and videos and stories from schools all around the world that have already gone back to school. And that reality causes us to pause.

I share these thoughts from one school superintendent’s perspective: Everything we are thinking about, the questions we don’t have the answers to, the things that are keeping us up at night, and everything in between…

Face to Face Learning

There is no question, this is our greatest hope and dream for Fall 2020 – to have all of our students back with us every day. We MISS our kids! We MISS being able to teach in our classrooms. We MISS the big crowds of Friday Night Lights, Pep Rally’s, Morning Assemblies and Spring Concerts. We didn’t even know that these things could be missed, but now that they’re gone, we desperately want them back.

And this is not just about “missing kids” or wanting to revert back to what was “normal.” Face to face learning in an environment where we see every student every day is critical for optimal learning. Even with the best remote learning platforms and households with tremendous support, our students are still at risk for falling behind. But for many of us, full face to face instruction won’t be our reality as quickly as we would like it to be.

Remote Learning

This where we’ve been for the past 61 days. Miraculous work by committed teachers to reach and teach students. Countless hours by campus and district leaders to create platforms and provide professional development. Our district chose to use a Google Sites platform and had grade levels work together to create a Google Slidedeck for each day of learning. They used Google Classroom (3-8) and SeeSaw (K-2) on the backside and linked assignments into the single point of contact site.

For 9-12, we utilized Google Classroom and tried to embed videos, apps and interactive assignments to the learning. We utilized Zoom for class meetings and small group discussions. While 100% Remote Learning is not where we want to be, it is essential that as we close this year we begin to ask the questions:

  • What worked? What needs to be adjusted/improved?
  • What is the best mix of synchronous / asynchronous teaching & learning?
  • What are reasonable expectations when learning is shifted to 100% Remote? # of hours per day per grade level? grading expectations? curriculum coverage?
  • How do we best sustain connection, build community and support our student’s learning needs?

Sporadic, Short-Term Closure

Having experienced what we did this past semester, we also know that this might be a scenario – where we are in school and are forced to close – quickly, unexpected and for an unknown period of time. When I think back to our closure, we had an early spring break, so my “late spring break” friends were able to see that closure was possible and jumped into action to deploy devices and materials before students departed, while we were left to do massive deployments of devices and materials and everything else students needed to do learning at home.

This too, warrants reflection and planning – because this might not just happen once, it may happen sporadically throughout the year. So how do we best equip our students and staff to fluctuate in a system where we may be open one week and have to close the next. Some things we are thinking about include deploying 1:1 devices instead of having carts in teacher classrooms, assessing internet needs at the beginning of the year and deploying hotspots where needed and maintaining our online platform so we can shift to remote learning much more nimbly than we did this past semester.

There are also calendar discussions happening around the country. Our Commissioner pitched an intersessional calendar which starts early and allows weeks to be moved around as needed as well as an extended calendar which allows similar flexibility but adds more instructional days. These too, offer promising solutions but are also laden with challenges – like 187 days (the # of days TX teachers work) is not the same in an intersessional model where you are basically “on call” for 11 months out of the year (as any week “off” can be reclaimed if needed). And what merit is there in taking extended time off in October if it is not needed until February? Like, can we really schedule COVID? While face to face instruction is best for many, are we really going to “stop” instruction for weeks a time when we have built this capacity to meet student needs remotely? And knowing that massive economic shortfalls are coming, are we in a position where we could pay staff to extend the school year?

Hybrid Learning

There is one other scenario that is in play and that is by far, the hardest to plan for. And that is bringing students back BUT maintaining social distancing. With campuses and classrooms that are at or overcapacity, this is causing leaders to consider a multitude of rotational schedules: A/B Day model where students rotate by day, an A/B Week Model where students rotate weeks, a Morning / Afternoon Model with daily shifts of students or an Elementary / Secondary Model where younger students are on campus and older students are remote.

But even if we cut the number of students in half, we are still left with never-ending questions on how we do arrival, dismissal, buses, lunches, class transitions, PE, recess, music, extracurricular activities – not to mention, learning. This very real challenge has been underscored as schools across Texas try to plan for one socially-distant event: graduation… Days and weeks of planning for one, controlled, 2-hour event in a massive outdoor stadium with less people attending than what we host on any given school day.

And to take it beyond our students and talk about our staff, how do we teach rotating groups of students all week, maintain the learning for students when they’re offline, sustain remote learning for the hopefully small # of students who can’t or won’t attend school because of COVID and for many, facilitate the learning for their own students who are operating on this schedule? And by the way, where will the staff’s children go on their “off” days and times?

I hesitate even publishing this article, because there are more questions than answers. But we need to start addressing the questions and continue to be thoughtful about seeking answers. We need to lean on one another, share our best thinking and learn from those who are ahead of us. We may not know what the 2020-21 school year will look like at any given moment, but we do know that it will fall into some part of this continuum – and as educators and leaders, we must prepare for it all.

I have shared some materials to help support this work. An editable staff & board presentation as well as a staff survey can be found at this link.

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