LHISD piecing together back-to-school map

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The summer is unfolding like a roadmap to how Texas students will get back to school next month, and there remains much to be discovered about the final destination as districts across the state handle the twists and turns of the unknown.

In Liberty Hill, administrators, teachers and staff are working on what Superintendent Steve Snell calls flexible plans in an effort to be ready for whatever comes in August.

“We’re going to take it as it goes and be flexible and prepared,” Snell said. “I think that’s the best call right now especially with all the unknowns and the time we have between now and Aug. 20.”

The unknowns center on not only what the COVID-19 virus does between now and then, but what guidance school districts will get from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) through the summer. The state has announced many options and suggestions since May regarding the upcoming school year, and only this week published more specific guidelines moving forward.

“That guidance changes almost daily from TEA and the state,” Snell said in June amid the variety of options and suggestions being discussed statewide. “We’re going to wait as late as we can to get those final plans out so we’re not constantly changing our information.”

The one thing everyone agrees on is that school is coming in August, and talk around the state of new calendars is not something Liberty Hill ISD is considering.

“There is a lot more of what we don’t know than what we do know,” Snell said. “But what we know is school will return in August in some capacity. You’ve heard a lot of rumors about various calendars coming down from the state, with school starting early with large breaks built in at various times. What I can tell you is we have a calendar that has been approved by the board and that is still our calendar. We will not start early. If anything, based on the numbers, school starting might be delayed. But we have a lot of time between now and August 20 to decide that.”

While Liberty Hill announced the plan in late June, TEA – in its recent guidelines – said parents will have the option to send their children to school or keep them home for an at-home learning program.

“Liberty Hill will have options, both for families who feel it is safe to send their student back to school and for families who aren’t ready who want a totally online option,” Snell said.

The district is also working to make sure that at-home option goes well beyond the at-home program schools across the state rushed to implement last spring.

“We know that the online option will have to be ramped up,” Snell said. “We are very appreciative of the work our staff did in an emergency situation to get everyone a computer and engaged at home, but we realize with the extended time off from school that student learning has suffered, so our curriculum department, our teachers, our principals worked very hard to create plans to have robust and rigorous learning for those who choose the at-home option.”

One way the district will be asking parents to help in planning is to make a decision late this summer on whether to send their children to school or keep them home.

“At some point in July we are going to ask you as families to officially register your child and make a commitment to in-school learning or at-home learning, and we are going to ask you to keep that commitment for approximately six weeks so we can plan logistically the lessons, the social distancing and the safety procedures,” Snell said.

Even with that commitment, the district knows some combination of the two will be important in case needing to keep students out of school – individually or as a group – becomes necessary.

“There might be days where you feel fine sending your student to school and there might be days where you need to keep them home and we understand that,” he said. “We also understand that some students and staff might have to stay home for an extended period of time and we have to provide those lessons for them so they can have those lessons at home in self-quarantine.”

The possibility exists of a closure like the one last spring, which would mean at-home learning for a much larger group of students or the entire district.

“We also don’t know what the virus will do,” Snell said. “We have to plan for what happens if we have to shut down. It might be a student or staff member that has to go home for two weeks and self-quarantine. It might be a classroom that has to go home, an entire school or even an entire district. That’s definitely one of the uncertain things, so being flexible and being prepared are going to be very important as we move forward.”

At present, TEA has announced that as long as Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask requirement is in place, teachers, staff and students will be required to wear masks in school buildings. It was also announced that anyone coming to a campus – students, staff, teachers and visitors – must be screened before being allowed on campus, but the TEA letter did not specify what the screening would be or how it had to be conducted.

“The state is providing some personal protective equipment and some other things so we will have safety measures in place from the time your student leaves home – whether they get on the bus, are dropped off by car or walk – until the time they leave to get home,” Snell said.

Some information has begun to filter down about funding, but districts are still waiting for specifics.

“Funding drives a lot of our decisions, we have to be able to afford what we’re doing, but that can’t be the only driver,” Snell said. “We have to keep our kids and our staff safe. Those funding formulas are being worked out, but TEA has not given us that yet to see how online will be funded, or maybe even a hybrid model, how that would be funded.”

This week, TEA pledged there would be reimbursement for COVID-19-related expenses to districts from last year, as well as free online tools for delivering remote instruction, and statewide efforts to help bridge digital gaps where needed.

Gov. Abbott and the UIL signaled that sports and other activities would also begin with school this fall.

“Our coaches and the UIL have taken great measures to plan and provide ways to keep students safe and mitigate the spread of the virus,” Snell said. “What we don’t know is in what capacity or for how long, and as the cases keep increasing that might change as well. But for right now we’re planning to open up school in the fall and that means we’re opening up activities for kids – band, sports and other things. But we are going to do everything we can to keep them safe.”

He added that a second survey would be sent out this month, and more detailed plans for the upcoming school year would be announced by August 1.

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