Reflections on school during COVID-19 and looking ahead to the future: Part 4: Nimble is the New Normal

This is the fourth in a series of commentaries on the Pampa ISD experience during the COVID-19 crisis. I would like to highlight some of the steps we are taking this summer to plan and prepare for the 2020-2021 school year. Our goal is to re-open our schools in August safely and with intentional plans that would allow us to adapt, pivot, and provide the services that our students and families need regardless of the conditions we find ourselves in at any given time. 

I recently shared with the Board of Trustees a Continuum of Learning Environments framework, which is guiding our planning and preparation for the upcoming school year. 

The Continuum describes how we must be prepared for up to four possible scenarios and everything in between as we open and go through the 2020-2021 school year. Of course, our hope and primary plan is to return to 100 percent face-to-face instruction in August. This is what we plan for each year and we will be ready to do just that. However, it would be irresponsible of us as an organization to not have contingency plans for the other scenarios. Everything we have heard from governing agencies tells us to hope for the best and plan for the rest! That is exactly what we are doing in the Pampa ISD. Each scenario brings different challenges and nuances to be considered. 

Face-to-Face
Instruction

Although providing traditional face-to-face instruction is what we all are familiar with, we will most likely be expected to implement operational adjustments and procedures to ensure that we are taking measures to prohibit the spread of germs and exposure to COVID-19. The Summer School requirements from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) are very restrictive and mandate a great deal of protocols including daily health screens and supervised hand-washing throughout the day-- just to name a few. 

We developed our return to summer school protocols and the Gray County COVID-19 Task Force discussed them as well. As noted in previous commentaries, we plan to implement several summer school programs in June and July. These programs will not only support our students and provide them with wonderful enrichment opportunities, but they will give us the opportunity to test our procedures and help us refine reasonable, workable ways to “do school” next year. We anticipate these restrictions loosening over the summer and it is our desire to be “back to normal” by August. However, the new normal is the reality that we must be nimble –able to make changes quickly and with a high degree of quality and care. It is just too early to know and we will be receiving more guidance from the Governor’s office and the Texas Education Agency sometime in July!

Remote Learning

The 100 percent remote learning scenario is how we ended this school year. Although not ideal for some families, we were able to stay connected with most of our students and provide them with learning opportunities, technology, and meals as well as counseling services. I am very proud of the hard work and systems that we put into place very quickly. Additionally, our staff learned a great deal about innovative and engaging ways to conduct teaching and learning. Regardless of the context, we will continue to implement some of these best practices in the future. 

Despite the numerous advantages of remote learning, it was very clear to us that this way of doing school was not and will not be a good option for some of our families. Some families did not have access to reliable internet and were not able to access our free WiFi spots around town. Some families told us that parents who had to work full time and then be their child’s teacher at night was just not a workable long-term solution. We completely understand that. Even many of our teachers struggled and worked harder than ever trying to teach their students and teach their own children at the same time. 

We are working on plans that will provide additional supports for our staff and for parents should we find ourselves in this situation again. Our prayer is that we will not be forced into this again, but we must be ready for this. We will use what we have learned from our past covid remote learning experiences to improve our skills, our systems, and our supports for our teachers, students, and families. 

One way we are improving is that we are building a K-12 online learning management system (LMS) that is more user friendly and streamlined than the various mechanisms we had to stand up overnight last spring. Canvas is the name of this LMS and I am excited about using this both as a fully integrated Online K-12 Pampa ISD option as well as a tool for supplementing our face-to-face instructional classrooms as well. Some of our families may choose to continue remote/distance learning in the fall and we want to offer them our K-12 PISD@HomeLearning system both as Online and Paper Based packets as options. I am very excited about providing this for some of our families and I believe it will help them meet their needs and desires to stay safe, have flexibility, and still stay engaged in our school system. We know that all of this craziness will pass eventually and most students and families will want to return to face to face learning as soon as possible.

Hybrid/Blended Learning and Short-Term, Sporadic Closures

The two ends of this continuum are much easier to grasp conceptually and to plan for procedurally. It is in the middle that things get “interesting”. The TEA is also instructing us that we must have contingency plans for possible isolated outbreaks in our communities and we must be prepared to close down parts of or all of our campuses if covid conditions pop-up or worsen overall. Although this is not anticipated, it is a possibility for which we are preparing. 

So, what does this look like? There are a myriad of possible scenarios under these conditions. Some of these could include some students learning face to face and some learning online. It could mean that students learn sometimes face to face and those same students may learn online sometimes. Another possible scenario could involve varied schedules, staggered start/stop times, and periodic short-term classroom or campus closures to provide staff time to conduct deep cleaning and disinfecting if needed. The decisions on how things should look will not be made until the conditions arise---and only if they arise. Notice I use the word --- could---. Please know that it is our intention and desire to NOT move into these challenging scenarios, but if this does happen, we will be prepared to continue teaching, learning, and serving our students and families.

One way we are preparing is by conducting staff, student, and parent surveys. As we build plans, we need feedback and input from our stakeholders. We want to know your thoughts, ideas, and concerns about school next year. We will be publishing our surveys in the coming days so let us know your thoughts, concerns, ideas, and if you would like to be a part of this planning and reimagining of the school year 2020-2021! We want to hear from you!

Our goal is to provide meaningful learning and growing experiences for everyone in the safest environments possible. Our leadership teams are working diligently to plan for each of these scenarios. They are building systems, writing procedures, constructing online and paper based curriculum, and creating meaningful and professional development/training for our staff. We will also communicate frequently this summer about the information we have received from the TEA and our plans moving forward. We need your input and welcome your participation in this historic process. Thanks in advance for completing the survey.

Be looking for our surveys on our social media outlets and on the Pampa ISD website. In addition, if you want to learn more about our Summer Thrive programs, you can visit our website to register. We have a variety of programs in both June and July! In the next article, I plan to share more about how our district is budgeting, staffing, and equipping for the next 2-3 years. 

Although we are still gazing upon the horizon with more questions than answers, I am thankful to be entering the unknown with the wonderful leaders, teachers, students, parents, and community in Pampa! Although these past few weeks have been challenging, they have made our organization more nimble and responsive to our community needs. I keep hearing people say they want to get back to normal. Friends, I believe that Nimble is the New Normal! Stay well Pampa ….there is light at the end of this tunnel!

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