District focus shifts to fall preparations

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Friday’s graduation event will put an exclamation point on a school year like no other, but district officials in Liberty Hill will not be stopping to catch their breath when it’s over, having instead already started preparations for the unknowns of the 2020-21 school year.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has raised many questions around the future look of education in the state, and districts all over Texas have found themselves working to nail down those questions and develop answers.

“Things will change rapidly and we’ll continue to get guidance from the state,” said LHISD Superintendent Steve Snell. “TEA has presented year-round calendars and the districts who have been sharing those and presenting them have been on those calendars for quite some time. TEA has put out an encyclopedia worth of information for us to use to help plan for next year.”

In addition to sharing ideas for year-round calendars, ideas such as lunch in classrooms and teachers changing classrooms rather than students have been thrown on the table. For now, Liberty Hill ISD is considering all possibilities, but focused on preparing for the traditional plan for a new year as much as possible.

“A year-round calendar would represent a culture shift and to me would require much more planning than a couple of months over the summer,” Snell said. “Where Liberty Hill is going to be focused is how can we keep our students and our faculty safe? What protocols can we put in place that maximize student safety?”

The district has formed a number of task forces that will focus on the variety of challenges and long list of questions dealing with COVID-19 has presented.

“How do you provide social distancing on a school bus that’s overcrowded because of fast growth?” Snell said. “How do you provide safety and social distancing at PE, in the cafeteria and on the playground at recess? The TEA has also pushed out things like staggered schedules with half the kids coming one day and half the kids come on another day, but we’re not ready to say that’s our plan. I think our focus will be a lot on hygiene and healthy practices.”

In addition to a safety and operations task force, there is another for teaching and learning, focusing on what learning might look like next fall.

But before they can plan, leaders want an idea of what the community is comfortable with.

“We’ve started sending out surveys that get our parents’ and our staff’s opinion on their thoughts of returning to school,” Snell said. “We have to plan for what’s the traditional school model where kids come to school every day and teachers come to school every day.”

School may start normal, but next year districts plan to be ready for similar situations to what they experienced this year.

“We’re also going to have to plan a hybrid model for learning at home should school have to close or should there be increased breakouts (of the virus), or any kind of change,” Snell said.

The safety of students is not the only concern, as the district has hundreds of employees it wants to take care of as well.

“We also have a task force for human resources and policy,” Snell said. “How do we protect our employees? We might have some employees who are in high-risk categories, or maybe they have an elderly grandparent living with them or a child who is high-risk, how do we accommodate them?”

The district is also taking a hard look at what the situation will be for athletics and extracurricular programs.

“What will marching band look like, what will athletics look like or locker rooms?” Snell said. “Will there be fans in the stands in the fall when football kicks off? I believe football will start in the fall, and volleyball, too, but I think it will look different.”

Since the beginning of preparations to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across Texas have been communicating and working together to collaborate on solutions.

“We’re all having the same conversations around the same topics,” Snell said of the meetings. “We’re using all the same data and I think the first step, the data we really need to know, is from those surveys to our staff and our community to get their thoughts on how they feel about sending their kids back to school or not. How do we make sure they get the same quality education at home they would get in the classroom?” Snell said.

Financial concerns were eased somewhat when TEA announced that next year’s funding was still in place per previous projections and plans.

“We got word from the (TEA) Commissioner, based on conversations with the state and CARES Act that schools will be fully funded next year,” Snell said. “That’s very good news for us, but we’re still going to plan very conservatively because we see the economic impact and cost that COVID-19 has had on our state and country and we usually lag behind a year in that funding. We’re just going to be very conservative planning for the future so we’re not caught by surprise if our funding gets cut by the state.”

That assurance allows LHISD to get to work on next year’s budget, which has to be approved in August.

“Now that we know the funding will be there we can start talking about compensation plans for staff and teachers and see what everything looks like,” Snell said.

Snell said looking ahead, though, he anticipates a need for change in how school funding formulas are set.

“I think the state’s going to have to look at a new model for funding,” Snell said. “It might be by contact and engagement versus seat time and who is here on any given day.”

Attendance counts have always been the key, but with the unknowns of students possibly not returning to the classroom, or even potential future COVID-19 outbreaks, attendance could look very different.

“If a kid tests positive what does that mean? They have to go home for 14 days. What does it mean for the rest of the class? What does it mean for the rest of the school? We’re all in this together and all these superintendents are gathering the best brains in their districts and getting with each other to talk about every possible question that might come up and how we can handle that. It’s definitely a brave new world for public schools these days.”

What Snell does know is that regardless of how everything looks in the fall, the growth challenge in Liberty Hill has not become less of a concern for planners.

“We’re in touch with the Realtors and developers too in terms of what they’re seeing on home sales and Liberty Hill is still a hot spot,” he said. “It slowed down in April, but it’s warming back up.”

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