LHISD weathering COVID issues
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Since the education landscape changed dramatically last March, fending off the COVID-19 virus has only been one of the many challenges facing Liberty Hill ISD as it has adjusted.
Technology issues have been one of the biggest hurdles, and trustees spent $64,250 Monday to overcome one of those.
There were 120 iPad Minis in use across the elementary grades in the district that were no longer effectively running the Seesaw education application used at the elementary level due to their age. The Board voted to replace them.
“With COVID we’ve made some adjustments to our instructional strategies and the tools we’re using in the classroom,” said Chief Technology Officer Jay Olivier. “One of the major tools we’re using is a program called Seesaw. We started using it a couple of years ago. When we went into our quarantine period and subsequently over the summer, the feedback we got from teachers was Seesaw was a program they definitely wanted to use in the lower grades.”
Changes in education mean learning apps are being updated and improved more frequently, which is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to keeping up to date with technology.
“The world we live in now is full of remote learning changes and across the country these apps are being updated at a breakneck pace, with Seesaw being updated about every other week over the last several months,” Olivier said. “The unfortunate side effect is that whereas before it was fully compatible with older devices now it is less so.”
In total, the funds will replace the 120 older iPad Minis, as well as 28 for special programs and 50 additional units to cover anticipated enrollment growth. The devices cost $325 each.
The original intent was to replace these specific devices at the end of the current school year, but the functionality problems have moved that timeline up.
Superintendent Steve Snell echoed Olivier’s comments about the technology challenges that have been amplified throughout the pandemic.
“This has been an outstanding effort by everyone, from transportation to food service to instruction to leadership,” he said. “The one thing we’re struggling with is technology logistics.”
He added that it is not only device issues that need attention, which has led to additional staffing on the tech side.
“We’re finding out something new every day, that something either works well or doesn’t work well and we still have limited staff to correct those problems,” Snell said. “We added two tech support positions that should really help troubleshoot issues in real time for both remote and in person learners.”
Due to the heavy workload on teachers as they work to keep up with remote and in-person learners, as well as the transition of many students from remote to in-person, the Board approved a suggested calendar change Monday, making Nov. 9 an in-service day.
“I think we are doing an excellent job in many, many areas,” Snell said. “Our teachers are exhausted, that’s an understatement – both physically and mentally. But they’re doing a tremendous job. The two days we had for professional development and parent conferences made a very big impact just on letting teachers recharge their batteries a little and get balance.”
With that Monday being the beginning of the new grading period, Snell said the day will help teachers prepare for new students coming back as well as reset for the new period.
“We have another grading period where parents will have the choice to come back, which is a good thing, but the decision to give them a day to make sure everything is ready and prepared and reduce that stress will go a long way for our staff,” he said.
At the beginning of the school year in August, Snell said there were 66 percent of students who returned to campus, and that number now stands at 75 percent.
“We’re prepared for everyone who chooses to come back and we’re prepared for everyone who wants to stay remote at this time,” Snell said. “There might come a time where there’s so few remote students we might have to consolidate those efforts a little bit, but we’re prepared for whatever happens.”
The district’s drug testing program had been delayed at the beginning of the school year, but Snell said it is being reimplemented this month, and will include on campus as well as remote-learning students.
“We delayed drug testing this semester with COVID, but we have two rounds scheduled, one later this month and one in November,” Snell said.
As of now, LHISD expects to place state testing back on the schedule for later this school year.
“The state right now is of the opinion that STAAR and EOC will continue,” said Assistant Superintendent – Curriculum, Instruction, and Accountability Dr. Toni Hicks. “Our teachers right now are doing everything they possibly can to make sure they are meeting the needs of our kids. Not only are they teaching for this school year, but they are having to pull in the COVID slide from the spring. It is in our opinion unreasonable to think this is one of your typical years.”
The only way to avoid state testing is by action from the Governor or the Legislature.
“I think as long as we’re in school we will have to take the state assessment,” Snell said. “No one is scared of the test and we’re a high-performing district. My concern would be how are those results going to be used. If they’re used strictly on a diagnostic level to help plan for kids and instruction then it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s used to punish schools based on everything else we’re dealing with I don’t see how that’s a good thing for anybody.”
Snell hopes if testing does go forward as it looks like it will, that it is not the focus with everything districts are currently dealing with.
“Its importance should be downplayed this year to say the least,” he said. “It’s just one of those things. We were out of school for six months, we’re playing catch up and we’re seeing the effectiveness of remote learning depending on factors beyond our control. It’s just problematic and until we get all of our students back in school so we can really get a good idea of where they’re performing academically, taking that state test, in our opinion, needs to be downplayed a little bit.”
Keeping the virus at bay
Liberty Hill ISD currently has two staff members confirmed to have COVID-19, and there are 18 students quarantined at home. Snell pointed out, though, that the quarantined students are not at home due to exposure on campus, but through family members or other contact outside of school.
“What we’re seeing is the vast majority of our quarantines are coming from families who have positive cases in their households unrelated to exposure at school,” Snell said.
In total, the district has had 21 total cases – 19 of those recovered – since July 1, and while cumbersome, the contact tracing effort has made a big impact.
“Our number one logistical concern has been the contact tracing and when it first started we were quarantining more students and staff than we wanted to, but you’ve got to put the protocols in place. You have to trust the plan and the process,” he said. “It has worked out very well.”
Snell attributes the low numbers in the district to community buy-in to the safety protocols in place.
“I need to thank the parents as well because they have worked with us,” Snell said. “There’s lots of disagreement out there on whether masks are effective, but numbers don’t lie and right now we’re keeping for the most part everybody safe. We’ve had some really good, nine weeks worth, of low COVID numbers and even other sicknesses as well. The hand washing and mask wearing is helping even though there is a disagreement among people about wanting to wear the mask. It’s keeping our staff comfortable and it’s keeping our kids safe.
“The key is all members of our team have to be consistent every day with the protocols,” Snell said. “As soon as you drop your guard, that’s where you’re at risk of exposure so as long as everybody’s honest, as long as everybody stays home when they don’t feel good and have a fever, and as long as everybody practices those pretty simple school-wide procedures I think we’ll continue to keep the train rolling and have a successful school year that doesn’t get interrupted.”