LHISD planning for all possibilities
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Many administrators, staff, teachers, and even parents, in Liberty Hill ISD have spent much of the last four months beginning nearly every sentence with “What if” or “How do we”.
The questions have not stopped since the first COVID-19 cases in Texas led to school closures across the state and preparations began for how to safely return to school this fall.
It may not prove to be the final one, or the one people want to hear most, but in a five-hour marathon meeting of the LHISD Board of Trustees Monday, there was an answer for every question.
Superintendent Steve Snell circled Aug. 1 on the calendar as the date LHISD would announce details of its back to school plan, and he said that was still on.
A decision was not announced Monday on whether the district would delay in-person classes up to a month as many area districts have announced, but Snell knows a decision on that question and others will have to come soon.
“I think we’re going to make it sooner and that’s just mainly due to the fact that the community just keeps asking,” he said. “I think it’s very important to wait a little bit, see what the virus is doing and make an informed, patient decision, but the demands of community and staff say they need that a little bit sooner.”
As with all plans over the last five months, Snell is reminding everyone that plans change often.
“The hard part is it’s always subject to change depending on what the virus does,” he said. “If we see some more spikes that plan might have to be delayed a little bit. If by some reason the numbers drop we can feel a little more comfortable moving forward quicker.”
Even with detailed, throughly vetted plans, the district knows there is some amount of risk inherent in any plan.
“We’re trying to meet the needs and desires of our community and staff and keep everyone as safe as we know how,” Snell said. “I think everybody realizes there’s no way to eliminate risk, we just have to do everything we can to reduce the risk. We think we have solid plans and they’ve been vetted through by a lot of people and we’re going to put them out there and give everyone a choice at this point on whether they want to come back or whether they want to stay online a little bit.”
In the most recent survey sent to parents – which resulted in 4,184 responses – 59 percent of respondents said they would send their students back for in-person classes, while 41 percent said they would choose online learning. The Texas Education Agency has mandated that schools across Texas give parents both options for learning this academic year.
“The first time we did a survey it was 95 percent were going to send their students back and five percent were going to stay online, and that was based on the data at the time,” Snell said. “Now, obviously we see the spikes in cases and this virus is doing pretty much the exact opposite of what we would have hoped it would have done. So there’s a healthy amount of fear toward this virus and a healthy amount of concern about what we’re seeing in the community. So that 60-40 (breakdown) wasn’t necessarily a surprise but it definitely helps in terms of how we want to safely keep kids distant and manage a school day while putting kids at a minimum risk.”
Work remains on making sure teachers and staff are ready and comfortable with taking on that percentage of the student population – which as a whole is projected to climb to near 5,500 this year – in the classroom.
“When we dig deeper over this week, we might have to actually lower that number of who actually comes back in person,” Snell said. “We need to let our staff look through our plans and make sure they’re comfortable coming back and see how many we have and what adjustments we might need to make to that 60 percent number.”
No matter how many students return for in-class instruction, the use of personal protective equipment will be mandatory.
“The use of personal protective equipment will be non-negotiable,” Snell said. “If you’re coming to school, you have to protect yourself and others. Keeping our teachers and workforce safe and healthy is as crucial as it is keeping our kids and their families healthy. We’re going to do everything we can to mitigate this spread and that’s part of the contract or agreement on coming back. You’re agreeing that if you come back you will be respectful of everyone and wear these masks.
“There’s plenty of data and information to show that masks help regardless of your opinion on it,” Snell said. “And we’re not willing to take the risk of not wearing that.”
Many judgments will have to be made on which type of mask or face shield to wear, based on circumstances. The challenge of communication in situations involving speech therapy instruction and hearing impaired students may mandate face shields or an alternate type of mask.
The Texas Education Agency has stepped up to provide a large amount of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to get districts across the state ready for school.
Liberty Hill is receiving 34,000 disposable masks in child and adult sizes, 11,000 reusable masks, 20,000 pairs of gloves, 36 touchless thermometers, 515 gallons of hand sanitizer and 600 face shields.
Snell also said the City of Liberty Hill has been helpful throughout the summer in getting PPE for the district, and is able to purchase it at a reduced price.
Even with the equipment and strict protocols the district will have on buses, on campus and in classrooms, Snell said buy-in to a new way of thinking among parents, students and the community at-large will be critical.
“Limiting exposure is part of the key as well, so face shields and masks and constant hand washing and sanitizing should mitigate the spread in the school building, but of course we can’t control outside the school building,” Snell said. “One of our biggest challenges is changing the culture in Liberty Hill and across the state that when kids don’t feel good we tell them to tough it out and go to school. When teachers don’t feel good they say they have to be there. We’ve got to retrain our staff and students to where if you have any symptoms whatsoever related to COVID, or a fever, you have to stay home. You’ve got to protect yourself and everyone around you until we know you’re safe.”
That also means practicing all the habits enforced at school elsewhere as well.
“If we allow kids back in school, that doesn’t mean you can stop social distancing at home and limiting travel and stuff like that,” Snell said. “All the restrictions that are put in place in Texas are things we still have to practice outside of school as well and that’s something we can’t control. Our contract with parents is that they will not send a kid to school with fever. The one common thread with COVID is the fever. It’s not the be all end all, but the fever with other symptoms is pretty telling with this virus.”
He added that because online learning will be available to all students, no one should push themselves to come to school when feeling ill.
The district will be doing contact tracing for any positive COVID-19 cases discovered in school.
“Informing parents when there are positive cases is a part of our plan, preventing the spread is part of our plan, and the reason we will contact trace is because we’ve got to make sure the people they were exposed to that those people were wearing protective equipment and it wasn’t prolonged exposure.”
General communication on what’s new, what’s changing and everything parents and students need to know for going back to school is going to be available in one place on a new district site, which can be found on the district’s current website.
“We’re rolling out a new website just devoted to coming back to school, called Return to Learn,” Snell said. “We’ll have short videos on there about anything from how to wear a mask or what type of mask, to what school is going to look like depending on the age group. It will have information on online curriculum, all of our safety plans and our safety handbook. Everything you can imagine we’ll put on that website and we’ll continue to add to that as we can.”
One additional need for the upcoming year with so much online focus on learning is making sure the school district has all the computer devices needed. The Board approved the purchase of 810 additional Chrome Books and 250 iPads at a total cost of $304,121 to complete the transition to a truly one-to-one device program for all students in the district.