LHISD educators look forward to fresh start


By Rachel Madison

A year ago at this time, no one knew what impact the COVID-19 pandemic would have on the world, let alone how it would change the school year for students, teachers and administrators alike across the Liberty Hill Independent School District.

Now that the school year is over, district and campus leaders are breathing a sigh of relief — and anticipating a much smoother start to the next school year.

LHISD Superintendent Steve Snell said because school ended so early in the 2019-20 year — right after spring break — the students were starting this school year after a five-month hiatus.

“Normally you see a slide in learning over the summer, and then we realized it had been five months since kids had been in school,” he said. “One great thing is that across the country schools were staying closed and teachers were refusing to come back to school, yet in Liberty Hill our teachers were begging to come back. They wanted us to do whatever it took to get the kids back in front of them, and the parents and community wanted our schools open, too. We had task forces that worked last summer to figure out how we could open safely, and we did a fantastic job of that.”

Snell said as the school year went on, the district had many ups and down, including a lot of quarantines for various classes and grades.

“As the state and county went with cases, so did LHISD,” he said. “We saw a spike around November and December, but as we got into spring we figured it out and hit our stride. After spring break as the numbers went down, students were able to take their masks off, and then teachers were able to take their masks off, and we could invite parents back into our buildings. We had a fantastic end of the school year, including an in-person graduation ceremony for our seniors, and we were so excited to be able to celebrate with them and their families.”

Tanya Lambert, principal at Bill Burden Elementary, said she’s excited and ready for the new school year already.

“The kids have been gone [a few] days and I’m ready for them to come back and get after it,” she said. “This time last year we were all really scared about how to provide a safe and loving environment for these kids when there was so much unknown. Last year we were nervously and anxiously awaiting school to start, but this year I’m ready to go.”

Lambert said it was nice ending the year on a high note, with parents able to come into the school for events like Field Day and end-of-the-year awards ceremonies.

“I’m glad we ended with things feeling a little more normal,” she said. “That gets us in the mode for next year’s planning. We are ready to forge ahead with what we consider normal, and have our parents as involved at the school as we have in the past. We are hoping to kick off our year the way we normally would with Meet the Teacher and our staff being able to do things in-person together again.”

Julie Clark, who most recently taught sixth grade science at Liberty Hill Intermediate School, said she’s relieved the school year is over, and is grateful to have the summer to decompress.

“It’s definitely been a challenging year,” she said. “I think it’s the most challenging I’ve ever encountered as a teacher. It was even more difficult than my first year, and I think a lot of other teachers feel the same way.”

When the new school year starts, Clark will be teaching fifth grade math and science at Bill Burden Elementary.

“I’m hoping we’ll start the new year the same way we left this last one off,” she said. “I hope there will be no masks for teachers and students, and we’ll be letting visitors back in the building. We missed having functions where parents could be there, and we couldn’t do field trips — we couldn’t do a lot of things we normally do.”

Stephen Traynor, who taught U.S. History to eighth graders at Liberty Hill Junior High this year, said the disruption of routine to those who have been teaching for a long time was difficult.

“As teachers, we have muscle memory and habits that were just disrupted by social distancing,” he said. “I usually have an active classroom, and I had to become unactive. My students normally have their desks in four-person, cooperative groups. Instead, I had to sit them in rows. It was a disruption to my flow and how I usually teach, but the kids were quite resilient.”

Traynor, who will be transitioning to teach eighth grade U.S. History at the new Liberty Hill Middle School, said the most difficult aspect of the year was having to balance teaching students who were both in the classroom and who were learning from home.

“I had some students that learned from home all year that I never met, and that was unusual,” he said. “One of the joys of working with kids is seeing them overcoming their struggles and learning. It was hard not being able to see that, because students really had to do a lot on their own through the computer.”

Although the school year was difficult for everyone, Lambert said the resiliency of the staff and students was encouraging all year long.

“No matter what was thrown at them, everybody just figured out a way to make it through it together,” she said. “That was definitely the best part of the year—seeing the support and how everybody came together.”

Clark added that teachers and staff also saw the challenges students faced.

“When you teach sixth graders, they are aware of what’s going on in the world and I saw some heightened anxiety throughout the year,” Clark said. “Some days they would miss school, or they would want to learn online because it was a struggle. That was heartbreaking to see. The theme for many of us this last year was to give a lot of grace and hope to get some grace in return.”

She added that because students and teachers were required to wear masks much of the year, it was hard to make connections.

“The kids didn’t let their true personality show when they were wearing the mask,” she said. “You can’t see their face and they can’t see yours. It caused them to shut down a bit. Towards the end of the year, once we lost the masks, I saw their personalities come out and it was really nice to see.”

While building relationships with students proved to be more difficult, Clark said she also learned that teachers are much more malleable than she thought, citing that many teachers switched from teaching online to teaching in-person, and with that came big changes in how classroom procedures and rules were set.

“We had to learn to be flexible,” she said. “I’m still a little apprehensive going into the new year, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

When school starts again, Lambert said teachers across her school are ready to get back to hands-on learning with small groups, as that wasn’t possible during much of the 2020-21 year.

Traynor said he’s also looking forward to seeing his entire class and knowing he can start class under normal conditions.

“I don’t know what will change between now and August when we start school, but if the current trends hold, I anticipate all our kids will be in a better position,” he said. “The district helped us get through this the best we could, and we are just hoping for normal in the new year.”

Snell said now that this difficult school year is in the rear view mirror, he can look back and see what the district is capable of achieving. He expects it will be a “blueprint for success” coming into the fall.

“Next year will be 100 percent in person, and masks will be optional,” he said. “We’ll still do some things, like encouraging hand washing and cleaning our buildings. In addition to keeping COVID at bay, we had zero cases of the flu this year and very few cases of stomach bugs. Those minor illnesses that we normally see we didn’t have, so we’ll keep those safety protocols in place. We can’t wait to have everyone back. We are going to work hard this summer to be prepared for an awesome school year next year.”