Schools closed, opening new ways to meet needs
By Mike Eddleman
Liberty Hill ISD announced Monday that students would not return to class until April 6, a move taken by all Williamson County school districts as the list of districts closing across the state swells daily.
“This is unlike any other emergency situation,” said LHISD Superintendent Steve Snell. “I’ve dealt with hurricanes, I’ve dealt with school closures and we’ve dealt with bad weather days obviously, but this is a new and interesting front. It’s the enemy we can’t see and the enemy we don’t know a whole lot about. We’re taking steps that the experts in the health department say we should take in order to stop the spread of this and not end up like other countries.”
But closing schools is not as simple as locking the doors and telling everyone to stay home, and area superintendents have been meeting by teleconference daily – along with Williamson County officials – to answer the difficult questions of how best to try and continue meeting community needs.
In a joint press conference with Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell, eight local superintendents, including Snell, tried to answer many of the most pressing questions about the closures and what plans were being developed for dealing with the near-term issues.
“The superintendents of schools throughout Williamson County all know we are a foundation for our community,” said Georgetown ISD Superintendent Dr. Fred Brent. “I can assure you that during this unprecedented time – and none of us have seen this throughout our careers – we are on the phone every day together. Seven days a week we have a conference call with our TEA (Texas Education Agency) Commissioner Mike Morath. We have conference calls together as a team and we’re always coordinating services and offering partnerships.”
The two primary areas of focus for area schools are determining the best way to provide instruction and meals even with campuses locked up tight.
“The cabinet-level administrators (in LHISD) got together most of the day (Monday), I’ve been planning with superintendents all weekend until late figuring out what we’re going to do,” Snell said. “We’re closed down, but there’s some expectation for school to go on, which makes it a little different. We’re prepared for the long term. I want to keep hope that it’s not going to be long term.”
Snell, along with most of the superintendents who spoke Tuesday, identified step one as addressing the food and meals issue.
“We’re going to feed our kids starting Monday,” Snell said. “We will have a drive thru service and we will also provide breakfast and lunch at bus stops and children will use their smart tags for that.”
More details will be available before Monday on the district’s food service plan, specifically regarding distribution at bus stops, but meals will be available for pick up at Bill Burden Elementary, 315 Stonewall Parkway. Breakfast will be available 8-9:45 a.m. and lunch from 10 a.m. to noon.
The plan for providing instruction for students is much more of a challenge to work through.
“We’re currently finalizing plans for instructional engagement and continuing the education with as little interruption as possible online,” Snell said. “That will take a little time. I think everybody up here will agree with me when I say we need patience from our communities as we are figuring out problems and we have more questions than answers at this point. We will get through this together, I guarantee that.”
One step in that process is to get technology in the hands of every student.
“I think we’re going to try to ramp up and try to get very kid fifth through 12 a Chromebook in their hands,” Snell said. “I don’t know what that will look like, but that’s the plan.”
Aside from the technology hurdle is how to get a program off the ground and demonstrate for teachers how it should work.
“There will also be a teacher training component and how do we do that when we can’t gather in groups of more than 10,” Snell said. “We will determine what phone lines will be open so parents can call if they have questions, so we will probably have a handful of people in a call center helping with that.”
He emphasized that answers would be shared with everyone as soon as they were available.
“We will communicate constantly with our parents through e-mail, through Facebook, through all those methods to make sure our kids are taken care of,” Snell said. “We’re going to do whatever it takes for the kids, so if that means long days and working on weekend we’re going to do it and will have a plan as soon as possible.”
No determination has been made by the State on whether the missed days will have to be made up.
“We are working through getting credit for instructional support we provide in our districts in hope that we do not make these days up,” Brent said. “Whatever is decided by the state we will be letting (people) know.”
Early Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced the State would waive STAAR testing requirements for the current school year.
Currently, there is no indication that teacher pay will be interrupted by the closures, but the districts are looking to TEA for information and expectations.
“We’re getting guidance from TEA on a lot of those things,” Snell said. “We’ll need our staff to engage in some capacity toward their job in a work at home situation or work in isolation situation in order to continue that pay based on TEA guidance, but I think we’re all building this plane while it’s in the air. My recommendation to staff is to check that TEA COVID-19 page daily, check the website daily and we’ll update everyone as soon as possible because that’s a real fear. We will do what we can and we have a regular scheduled board meeting Monday.”
The superintendents emphasized that access to campuses would be extremely limited if available at all.
“We are being very strict with our shutdown of facilities,” said Leander ISD Superintendent Dr. Bruce Gearing. “We are not allowing anyone inside our facilities. All of our custodial staff is working to do deep cleans this week and then we intend to keep our buildings tightly shutdown in order to keep then germ free.”
As with other districts, during this time, all Liberty Hill ISD facilities will be closed for instruction, including UIL events, athletics, rentals, field trips and after-school activities.
The group of students with the most questions are high school seniors looking forward to milestone events in the coming months to include prom and graduation.
“Seniors want to know about all their traditional things,” Snell said. “Liberty Hill is not cancelling anything. It might look different and it might be later, but we will do everything we can to let our seniors have their ritualistic stuff as they look toward graduation and what comes next for them.”
Gravell also made County-level requests for further assistance from school districts, applauding them Tuesday for taking on additional responsibilities by pledging various resources to the County.
“It’s really difficult to prepare for a disaster you cannot see, but we believe that the disaster is real and we believe we need to take appropriate steps to protect our community,” he said. “Knowing that (school districts) were shutting down, I said ‘If you shut down your schools could you provide us 15 nurses to backfill and support our health district. Our school districts said yes.”
The County also requested the assistance of mechanics from area school districts, and law enforcement assistance from two districts.
“I asked Hutto ISD and I asked Liberty Hill ISD if you’re not having school on Monday could we please have your peace officers and could they report to the sheriff’s office,” Gravell said. “That’s what you do when you have to work together. This is collaboration and it’s teamwork. We’re being asked to solve problems we didn’t know existed yesterday. And we’re finding honorable, lawful and creative ways to meet those needs today.”