Start Strong- Stay Safe: Back To School Plans


Tanya Larkin

Where to begin? As I write this article, I am reflecting on the almost surreal experience that we have had over the past four months—yes, it has only been four months---but it feels like a lifetime on some days! I have grappled with finding the best way to communicate ALL of the THINGS that we as a school district have been doing, learning, planning, and preparing for throughout this summer. In a time when questions outnumber answers 10:1, I felt it apropos to write this communication in a Q&A format. Below are the five most common questions I am asked the most frequently. Here goes…

“So, what are you all going to do about school this year?” 

Most of the people in school leadership have been asked this question more in the last two months than ever before. In fact, before COVID-19, I was never asked about IF we were going back to school; it was just an assumption on everyone’s part that we would. Nevertheless, COVID-19 changed that assumption forever.

Yes, I am very pleased to announce that we are returning to school! However, as I discussed in my previous articles, “school” will be different this year…at least until the increase in the spread of COVID-19 and mandatory quarantine protocols are not a reality in Texas. 

“How are you all making decisions about what school will look like this year?”

Although it is true that we are making thousands of decisions about innumerable aspects of school operations, teaching/learning, and safety measures, most of our decisions are anchored in legal and guidance documents from authorities at every level. Additionally, the guidance from these authorities is in a constant state of flux. 

For example, we received updated safety guidance on opening schools from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) on Thursday, July 23! This information, although helpful and detailed, came about six weeks later than we needed it. The University Interscholastic League (UIL), which governs all students activities in public schools including football, volleyball, marching band, just to name a few, published their guidance and expectations for early Fall events on Tuesday, July 22. Again, we needed this information at least a month ago. 

We are frustrated with the authorities, just as our local stakeholders may be frustrated with us. Our parents, teachers, and students want to know answers now---actually—they wanted to know them several weeks ago. So did we! The truth is that these authorities are doing the best they can and they are making decisions in a very political, polarized, and challenging time. 

Another authority that we receive information from on a daily basis is the Texas Education Agency (TEA). This entity, led by Commissioner Mike Morath, governs most of our operations in public schools including how all legal policies are implemented and how many aspects of teaching and learning must be conducted. We received our most recent updated guidance from TEA on July 23, 2020. We receive updates them TEA about three to four times a week –and we have since March. Each update has more detail and more changes. 

We have been working since early June on local guidance and operational procedures for everything in our schools from custodial protocols, transportation systems, school-based operations, to classroom instruction, and even how we will make our restrooms, cafeterias, and gymnasiums meet requirements and be safe for our students and staff. Despite all of the legal and administrative guidelines that we receive each day from the CDC, TEA, and UIL, we have worked hard to involve and engage our stakeholders in making as many decisions as possible. 

Throughout the month of July, we have conducted numerous virtual and face-to-face meetings with principals, directors, teachers, parents, students, and community members to gather their input and feedback on our back to school plans. We have also received responses to surveys throughout June and July from over a thousand stakeholders. We use all of this information and feedback to update our plans. 

The key thing to remember is that once we publish our plans and we begin school, things will continue to change and evolve. We will continue modifying and updating our procedures and plans throughout the entire school year. This will require swift decision-making and a mindset of flexibility with grace from everyone—staff, students, parents, and community. 

I have heard that parents can choose if their students go to school or if they learn virtually this year. Is that true? If so, how will that work?

Yes, both in-person learning on campus and virtual learning at home options are available for students in Prekindergarten through Grade 12. Campus, in-person students will attend school on a regular instructional schedule and will engage in classrooms on campus all day, every day. Virtual students will remain at home and will engage in the same learning activities on our remote learning management system CANVAS. All students (In-Person and Virtual) will access learning materials and submit assignments using the LMS system CANVAS. 

There are four rationale for this: 1) This provides alignment and equity for student learning opportunities, grading, and access to resources for ALL students regardless of learning environment. 2) If/when In-Person students move to a virtual environment, (due to increase in COVID-19 cases, exposure quarantine, or school closure, etc.) the students will have no disruption in their instructional schedule because they are already working in the LMS and are confident in navigating the system. 3) By having all students working in an LMS, we limit the number of exposure risks from sharing documents, papers, materials, etc. in the in-person classroom. 4) We believe that asking teachers to design and plan for two very different environments is just not practical. Teachers will design learning through the LMS for all students to access every day. They will conduct some traditional teaching activities in the classrooms and will be facilitators for all students as they take on more ownership of their learning through the LMS. Regardless of the environment, all students will receive instruction daily from Pampa ISD teachers.

Some electives will not be available for virtual at home learning due to limitations in the nature of the coursework, such as auto-mechanics, welding, etc. Additionally, some courses may require remote learners to come on campus to demonstrate certain skills. Students and parents will know these restrictions by Aug. 3 and will have other courses they can choose if they prefer to learn remotely. 

We will publish final back to school guidelines by Aug. 3. We are asking that all parents consider their options, and register their students for either face-to-face or virtual school for the first six weeks. They can change their mind, but only after each six-weeks grading period. No student will be enrolled, receive a schedule, or be assigned to a teacher without the parents informing us of their decision. Online registration for choosing which learning environment parents want for their students will be available on Aug. 3.

What about Extra-Curricular Activities? Are we still going to be able to do these things?

Yes, I am so excited to be able to say that we are going to be able to do these things this year. Yes, they will look and feel different, but we still get to engage in these events and competitions. The research is very clear on the importance of extra-curricular opportunities on the overall success and development of the whole-child. The UIL governs most of these activities and there are numerous changes for the events in early fall. For example, the UIL dictates that we only allow 50 percent capacity in our football stadium and that our athletes must wear masks while on busses and in locker rooms. Additionally, the marching band has restrictions as well on the number of students who can be together in a concert/practice hall and the distancing that must occur during performances and practices. Our coaches and directors received this guidance on July 22 and they are working around the clock to develop systems and procedures to make this all work for our students. Please be patient with us and we will appreciate your grace in advance. These restrictions will be inconvenient for everyone. However, we are thrilled that our students have not lost these opportunities. Let us work together to keep our local positive cases low so we can continue to enjoy these events. 

What about safety measures? What is the school doing to keep everyone safe?

It is no surprise that safety is on everyone’s mind when it comes to returning to school. In fact, safety is not a new concern; it has been and always is our first concern. If you recall, the Pampa ISD has taken great strides in securing our facilities, equipping our buildings with security cameras, and training our staff and students on the dangers of cyber bullying, drugs/alcohol, and engaging in risky behaviors. 

I am pleased to also report that before COVID-19, our school system had developed a state of the art system to combat germs and keep our staff and students healthier during the cold and flu season. After COVID-19, we have improved on those systems and have collaborated with a regional company called Germ Blast to support us should cases rise in our classrooms this school year. 

We received guidance from the CDC on reopening schools just this past week (July 23). We have been and are refining school operating procedures to ensure that we are following the requirements before we allow our staff and students back into our buildings in August. Some of the things we have been doing are writing protocols and procedures for limiting the spread of germs and possible exposure to communicable diseases such as covid-19. We have had numerous discussions about the use of masks/face coverings. There will be times that we must require them and there will be times that they will be optional. As we get closer to the first day of school, these and many other protocols including hand washing, cleaning and disinfecting will be decided and communicated with all of our stakeholders. 

We understand that most people still have numerous questions about starting school back this year. We do too! Please know that we are working hard to gather the most up-to-date information and working closely with our amazing team of teachers and leaders to make the right decisions for the right reasons every day. We also recognize that each one of us have varying priorities as we approach going back to school. 

For some, getting as close to normal as possible is something that you have hoped for and want to see as our students come back into our buildings. For others, making sure we are doing everything we can to keep each other healthy and safe is a huge priority. I truly believe that we have honored both of these values within our back to school plans and I think that you will see and feel this as we begin school in August.

Honestly, the truth is—we all just wanted this to go away so we would not have to ask the questions at all. Well, it has not gone away and we are doing our very best to cope, to prepare, and to inspire everyone to find a way to make this work for our students. They deserve our very best and we know that these restrictions, inconveniences, and changes will not last forever! #TogetherWeCan Start Strong and Stay Safe!

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