March of 2020 began like any other March—families gearing up for spring break; schools preparing for evaluations, the STAAR test, and end-of-year celebrations; and Texans enjoying the first bluebonnets even as allergy season reared its ugly head. But by mid-March, normalcy had vanished as Texas, the country, and the world at large grappled with the new coronavirus, or COVID-19—the cause of a pandemic with sweeping consequences.
The highly contagious illness ground business, socializing, church, and school to a crawl. On March 13, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a statewide public health disaster. On April 17, he issued an executive order mandating that school campuses remain closed to students for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year.
But that didn’t mean educators stopped serving students. Texas public educators hurriedly took their operations online in a feat akin to battlefield medicine: reinventing how they provided instruction and putting together homework packets, distributing technology, and operating curbside food pickup sites for their students. Among all the uncertainty, stress, and change, the Texas education community once again showed its compassion, courage, and determination to serve students and communities. What follows are just some of the stories to emerge from this extraordinary time.
TEACHING FROM A DISTANCE
By Jennifer Tuten
As concerns about COVID-19 set in, a flurry of questions swirled around maintaining quality and continuity of education in the age of social distancing. By the end of April, 41 U.S. states and territories had closed schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, according to Education Week. In Texas, school closures were extended twice before Gov. Greg Abbott ultimately ordered campuses remain closed through the end of the school year.
As triage-style distance learning became the “new normal,” at least temporarily, for the more than 1,200 school districts across Texas, ATPE reached out to members for their perspectives.
Initial Thoughts and Concerns
Mandy Vahrenkamp, an elementary teacher in Calhoun County ISD, says her initial reaction toward distance learning was apprehension. “I worried about those students who almost got a concept, those who don’t have the best home life or little food, and those who don’t have internet or access to a compatible device,” she says. “I knew we would do everything we could to help every student in our district, but there were still many concerns.”
Before Houston ISD closed, ESL teacher Lotus Hoey was planning a distance learning strategy with her colleagues at Pershing Middle School. “My team and I had tossed around the idea of making curriculum packets because we were thinking something’s going to happen—we might as well be prepared.”
After the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was canceled March 11, the possibility of campuses shutting down moved closer to reality, and the district ultimately closed campuses before Hoey and her co-workers could finalize their curriculum.
As educators rolled out distance learning plans, the transition proved easier in theory than in practice for parents trying to strike a balance between their jobs, multiple children’s workloads, and limited resources.
Vahrenkamp says: “Many parents have shared with me the struggle of having multiple children on different grade levels and only one device for all to work from. Parents, who are still working, struggle to get home from work to then start ‘school,’ while others are doing everything they can to keep their child(ren) focused and learning so as not to lose part of the year.”
Another hurdle: IT issues. “I know that many districts do provide devices, but as we all know, problems often occur with devices—who gets to fix the glitches and problems?” says Susie Andrews, a teacher for students with visual impairments in Raymondville ISD.
Roya Dinbali, a forensic science teacher at Nacogdoches High School, was mostly concerned about reaching students and their parents. The district sent emails and made phone calls to keep parents informed, but unfortunately, once some parents were contacted, they said they didn’t realize school was still in session.
Distance Learning Implementation
Some districts throughout the state were well-equipped to make the temporary shift to a distance learning platform; other districts set plans into motion to make technology accessible to the entire student population.
Kally Evans, a middle school science teacher in Willis ISD, was prepared for the distance learning task because her campus is 1:1 (one school-supplied computer, tablet, or mobile device per student).
“Using different technology applications to enhance my students’ learning is a daily norm,” Evans says.
The transition was more of an adjustment for her husband, who does not teach at a 1:1 school.
Tiffany Keszler, a K-5 music teacher in Ganado ISD, says her district is 1:1 thanks to grants the district had received several years prior. All students and teachers had been assigned their own Chromebooks, and the only logistical hurdle was organizing distribution points for the Chromebooks left on campus. Paper packets were sent to students not using the provided online learning platforms.
Mayra Gutierrez, a diagnostician in Weslaco ISD, says her district took a proactive approach to ensure continuity of learning: Educators were advised to create lessons and packets through the end of the school year in case students did not return to the classroom.
Woden ISD, a rural school district in East Texas, also adapted quickly to its students’ needs. One of the district’s main challenges, according to pre-K teacher Teresa Millard, was limited community access to technology and internet. Millard says one Chromebook was made available per household, and paper packets were placed outside school doors for pickup, as well as posted online.
Navigating New Challenges
As educators found innovative ways to connect with their students, shifting to a remote classroom presented its own host of obstacles.
Gutierrez says remotely addressing accommodations for special education students—especially hands-on work such as adaptive P.E., speech therapy, and gross motor skills activities—can be difficult. She also emphasizes the importance of documenting every interaction to ensure students, parents, educators, and administration remain on the same page.
Andrews agrees that meeting special education students’ needs is the most significant challenge with distance learning in full swing.
“My biggest challenge has been figuring out how to work with my students who have multiple handicaps and are nonverbal/nonresponsive,” she says. “I sent out ideas to the parents on what they can work on with the kids at home, but other than that, it can be difficult.”
Despite these obstacles, Andrews made the best of new practices in distance learning. She says Zoom is her favorite distance learning tool: “It’s been helpful and productive. I have also sent links to my students for cooking shows, educational videos, and free library and audiobook links. I am currently doing Braille lessons with one of my students who is blind—it has been so much fun to work with him.”
Jacki Cavazos, an elementary school teacher in Rio Hondo ISD, says her district prioritized communication. Educators called each student once a week and reached out via a secondary mode of communication as well: text, Microsoft Teams, email, or a second phone call. Cavazos says she and her partner teacher remained available as late as 7:45 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays for parents whose work schedules conflicted with the school’s schedule.
Grading and Distance Learning
The next priority for school districts was monitoring participation, progress, and performance. Some districts aligned grading policies with their existing systems as closely as possible, while others substituted numerical or letter grades with grades of “Pass,” “Fail,” or “Incomplete.”
Nacogdoches ISD implemented a pass/fail grading system in early April. Dinbali says the district initially instructed educators to hold off on grading while they worked out the details. At her school, students were expected to complete one hour of coursework per week for each of their seven class periods. The first two weeks following spring break were dedicated to review, and afterward, new material was introduced.
Hoey says that in Houston ISD, significant consideration was given to varying home circumstances. “We do still have students we have not been able to reach, and it’s not fair to them if they fail because they’ve not had a device or internet in the home.” She adds that Pershing is a Title I school with a fair population of students who lack internet or technology access.
Calhoun County ISD took similar measures to ensure equity among students. “We are taking grades on assignments, but most of it is a participation grade,” Vahrenkamp says. One daily assignment and one test grade were recorded per student each week. “My district did a really good job of allowing teachers to use our discretion on what we take for a grade, which is nice and minimizes the stress.”
Andrews, Millard, and Evans echoed the importance of flexibility in measuring engagement and progress. “Everyone is trying to find a balance between too little and too much,” Andrews says. “It’s all a learning process.”
Educators in Millard’s school district kept a close eye on participation to inform next steps in making materials available; however, assignments were not collected for a specific grade.
Evans says: “Should our situation change, things will be reevaluated. We are definitely working with a fluid situation.”
Breaking up the Monotony
While maintaining structure was essential in the transition to distance learning, districts around the state devised creative ways to shake up the routine and bolster morale.
Vahrenkamp held a Zoom scavenger hunt for her class. “We called out different items, such as ‘find a toy with wheels.’ Then students would run around their houses to find the item and return with it to show the camera.”
Keszler incorporated several game-based learning tools into curriculum to keep students engaged. Her students especially enjoyed BrainPOP quizzes. Her school shared links for virtual field trips to museums and aquariums, as well as a link to “P.E. with Joe” on the YouTube channel “The Body Coach TV” to keep kids active.
Hoey created a student incentive program using Class Dojo. Students earn 10 points for logging in each day and additional points through various games. Points can be redeemed for homework passes and other rewards. She also created an Instagram profile to help her students stay connected and kept in touch with parents not only on academics, but also on how things are going at home.
Cavazos and her partner teacher injected energy into their Microsoft Teams instruction with the help of GoNoodle, a website with movement and mindfulness videos. “We also wore funny headbands or hats to teach. I believe it helped remind the students that I was still there and wanted to make this situation as fun as possible.”
Gutierrez says her son’s teacher gathered students on Zoom to sing “Happy Birthday” to a classmate and share birthday cards.
Millard, Dinbali, and Gutierrez say their schools held virtual spirit weeks, encouraging parents to share pictures on their respective Facebook pages. Millard and her colleagues also wrote notes and created signs to share with their students in a “We Miss You” video published on the district Facebook page.
Lara Sursa, a librarian at Saegert Elementary in Killeen ISD, says her school also used Facebook to keep in touch with families. “We have done things like shout-outs, videos, virtual spirit weeks, and daily readings. My principal reads Sunday to Friday at 7:00 (a picture book) and at 7:30 (a chapter book) with our families. Many of us fill in when needed.”
Also, for Sursa, what started as a virtual substitute for a scheduled field trip turned into a video series featuring the farm she shares with her husband, fellow ATPE member Ron Sursa. Their video collection includes “showing how the chickens have grown, introducing baby goats, reading from the chicken coop, and goats climbing on us.”
Although the pandemic’s long-term effects on education are uncertain, one positive outcome is the technological knowledge gained from the experience and new understanding from parents about the educational process.
Evans hopes to see technology become more commonplace overall. “I would like to see my husband continue to use some of his new tech tools and his school to become 1:1,” she says.
Andrews would like to see online videos used more widely to build interest in content. “There are a lot of good materials available online, and I think we need to find more ways to engage our kids through various multimedia activities along with traditional teaching.”
Keszler wants the flipped classroom model to take a bigger role in education, noting that videos explaining a concept would allow for more hands-on work in class and reduce the need for tutorials during lunch and after school.
Cavazos hopes technology will help keep students on pace if they are unable to attend class. “Online video chat with students would be very useful, especially when they are absent.”
Vahrenkamp loved the parental involvement she saw in the distance learning environment. “Our parents were involved and asking questions and wanting to know what their child is doing and how they are doing it.”
Many questions remain about what lies ahead, but one thing is for sure: Educators are eager to return.
“I miss my kids!” Millard says.
THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF FEEDING THE CHILDREN
By Michael Spurlin
When schools began closing, educators and administrators had to rethink how they would instruct students. They also had to figure out how to feed children.
Each day in Texas, more than 3 million students eat meals provided by the National School Lunch Program. Closing school campuses might be necessary to slow the spread of a deadly virus, but doing so also left many children without access to meals they depend on.
To meet this challenge, Texas districts developed a completely new way to distribute food. With no safe way to serve food inside the school buildings, districts began distributing meals at curbside pickup locations. These distribution sites allowed parents to receive several meals at a time for their children while also helping protect food service staff by minimizing contact with the general public.
Creating this system so rapidly forced school district officials to remain flexible and adapt. Initially, in early March, due to Department of Agriculture guidelines, parents were required to bring their children with them to pick up meals. This rule, written in a world before COVID-19, created a situation social distancing guidelines aimed to prevent. Fortunately, after hearing from district officials, the Texas Department of Agriculture requested and received a waiver of this federal rule.
As the economic fallout worsened, food distribution centers became more important to more and more families. In response, the Texas Education Agency used the website txschools.gov to help families find school meal distribution centers. As time went on, some districts added other options to provide food to students, such as delivering food along established bus routes.
Houston ISD supplemented its food distribution efforts by teaming with the Houston Food Bank to hold massive community food pickups at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans. In the first two events, more than 1.3 million pounds of food were distributed.
Unfortunately, the contagious nature of the virus meant food service was a dangerous job. Many districts saw employees test positive for COVID-19 and had to close some distribution locations and alter plans. Manor ISD had to suspend food distribution altogether after a number of employees tested positive. Fortunately, district officials were able to resume after a weeklong shutdown and implementing new safety precautions. Although it was difficult, those who took on the responsibility of feeding the children are proud of the job they did.
“It has been rewarding serving on the front lines as we keep our district fed during these challenging times,” says George Townsend, director of food and nutrition services at Manor ISD. “The Lunch Hero Day takes on new meaning for me, permanently.”
Educators have long known that food service staff are an essential part of every school. They provide students one of their most basic needs, allowing the students to then focus on the task of learning. After the courage, dedication, and ingenuity nutrition services staff have demonstrated in the face of this crisis, Texans everywhere know they are also some of society’s most essential workers.
THE STATE OF STAAR
By Jesús Chávez
Each year, thousands of Texas students take a State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test. Passing these tests often means passing a grade level or meeting graduation requirements. But in the wake of COVID-19 school closures, the STAAR increasingly felt like less of a priority when weighed against public well-being.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic and remain-in-place policies shutting down campuses across the state, it became clear pretty early on that the logistics of actually administering the STAAR test this year would be next to impossible,” says Monty Exter, ATPE senior lobbyist. “Many school leaders hoped state officials would agree.”
Indeed, in early March, several elected officials, school officials, educators, parents, and other education stakeholders from across Texas began pushing for canceling the state testing requirement for this academic year. Still, it came as a minor shock when, on March 16, Gov. Greg Abbott, in conjunction with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), announced that Texas would waive the requirement for students to sit for and pass the STAAR for the 2019-20 academic year. Canceling the requirement altogether was an unprecedented turn of events. The state did not fully waive the state testing requirement even in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
In a statement, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said: “It has become apparent that schools will be unable to administer STAAR as they would normally. … We are thankful for Governor Abbott’s willingness to waive the STAAR requirement as it allows schools the maximum flexibility to remain focused on public health while also investing in the capacity to support student learning remotely.”
The move left many questions unanswered and TEA and school officials scrambling to answer them. Many details regarding the waiver—which ATPE hailed as the right move—remain unknown as of this publication. In the short term, without the need to prepare for immediate STAAR tests, schools have been able to focus on strengthening the logistics of distance learning.
“It’s pretty clear teachers and administrators are relieved not to have to worry about how to administer the STAAR test—or how their students would have fared—in this current environment,” Exter says. “They’re able to remain focused on devoting the extraordinary amount of energy required to just create some semblance of continuity of learning for their students. For now, that’s good.”
But Exter warns any long-term effects of this change and any potential challenges that need to be accounted for likely won’t be known until at least the next academic year. Schools will need to account for any changes or gaps that might come as a result of no state testing data for 2019-20. Many aspects of Texas’ public education system, from funding to accountability and distinctions, as well as numerous other academic programs, are tied to STAAR testing data.
“STAAR scores are not only linked to negative repercussions in the accountability system,” Exter says. “They’re also linked to positive things like campus distinctions. The data needed to assist in providing these distinctions may be unavailable next year.”
The lack of STAAR scores for students adds an extra burden upon districts in terms of assessing readiness for grade-level promotions. Per a March 18 TEA communiqué, without the typical state assessment data from STAAR, districts will have discretion as to whether students move to the next grade level.
For graduating seniors who have yet to complete full end-of-course (EOC) assessments, districts need to determine through an individual graduation committee process whether students have met enough other requirements to successfully qualify for graduation.
“Teachers, especially of graduating seniors, may find the alternative of running many more students through grade placement and graduation committees administratively burdensome at the end of the school year,” Exter says. “It’s going to take time to see how districts with large graduating classes work through these issues.”
No STAAR testing data might also delay incentives for teachers under the new Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) system, which, as part of House Bill 3, offers additional funding to districts based on the number of teachers who complete a National Board Certification or satisfy other locally developed requirements. Student performance data was already a minor part of the current teacher appraisal system, and, according to Exter, was set to play a larger part in districts that were otherwise ready to roll out the new allotment.
In addition to these state and local issues, there was the question of federal testing requirements. Although Abbott’s move effectively ensured school districts wouldn’t have to worry about the state testing requirement, it was nearly a week before any news broke about federal standardized testing requirements. State leaders had been imploring the Trump administration to waive the Every Student Succeeds Act mandate, which requires every state in the U.S. to test certain students on specific subjects annually. On March 20, the Education Department, under direction from Secretary Betsy DeVos, announced it would waive federal testing requirements so long as states submitted a “proper request” to the department.
As Texas educators and schools contend with the switch to distance learning, digital or otherwise, at least they won’t have to worry about preparing for the STAAR exam in the short term. There are enough issues for educators to contend with at present.
“The extended disruption in the learning environment is likely to exacerbate learning gaps between economically disadvantaged, limited English proficient, and special education students and their more affluent, English proficient, neurotypical peers,” Exter says.
FUTURE EDUCATORS PREPARE FOR THE UNKNOWN
By Sarah Gray
When many future educators should have been wrapping up final courses and field work, applying to open positions, or preparing for interviews, they instead found themselves at home trying to complete training virtually. Colleges adapted quickly once TEA and Gov. Greg Abbott released guidance on educator preparation programs.
“Right now, we’re making sure students get what they need,” says ATPE member Karen Taylor, Ph.D., director of field experience and an associate professor at Schreiner University in Kerrville. “We’re all working as hard as we can so that our students are getting the education they need to be successful.”
One TEA waiver allows certain educator certification candidates to apply for a one-year probationary certificate. Candidates must still complete the fingerprinting process. Additionally, TEA announced out-of-state educators on one-year certificates will receive an automatic one-year extension. Finally, the governor has waived certain requirements for those who were completing clinical teaching, an internship, or a practicum during spring 2020, including requirements that experiences take place in school settings, that face-to-face observations occur, and that 15 clock-hours of a field-based experience be conducted on a school campus for those completing their field-based experience this spring or summer.
Now, instead of having actual class-time observation, Taylor uses videos of theories, such as classroom management and project-based learning, so students can still complete the observation aspect of their coursework.
“The state has given us activities, like tutoring online, to meet criteria,” Taylor adds. “So, our students are tutoring online with their students like regular education teachers are doing, so they are learning to teach online. I told them, ‘This is where you really grow in your profession.’”
Rising to the challenge has been the attitude around South Texas College, where ATPE member Rene Zúñiga, Ed.D., is an associate professor of education. Due to the college’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and risk of hurricanes, Zúñiga says South Texas College has always taken a proactive approach to disaster response. This mindset has helped the college respond.
“It’s been a challenge, but a challenge that has been welcomed because you never know what could happen, and this is real life,” he explains. “This is good to teach our students that this stuff happens, and you’ve got to prepare for it.”
Zúñiga admits the closing of all public schools did take the college by surprise as they wondered how students would complete field experience if they can’t be in the classroom. That’s when it became a group effort. South Texas College education professors reached out to other organizations such as TCEA, the Texas Association of Community Colleges, and the Texas Association of Community College Teacher Education Programs to come up with new ways to meet the state’s requirements. Students were given online links to real-life teaching presentations on topics such as cooperative learning and asked to write reflection reports afterward.
“It’s like virtual field experience,” Zúñiga explains. “We came up with a pretty good amount [of video content] that show an actual teacher teaching a lesson. That’s what we want our students to see: what it is like to teach a lesson in a real school.”
Taylor and Zúñiga both say that, overall, the lessons are going well, though the new setup is not without issues. Zúñiga says some students lack internet access or have part-time jobs at H-E-B or Walmart, so some requirements had to be modified, and the education department extended deadlines when needed. Both professors also note that a virtual semester, as spring 2020 ultimately became, isn’t what students signed up for, and many of them miss the camaraderie of the program.
“My students are doing OK, but they’re sad they aren’t here [on campus],” Taylor admits. “This isn’t how they wanted their semester to end.”
Taylor and Zúñiga remain confident in their students.
“Our students are very hard workers,” Zúñiga says. “They are very humble and do what we ask them to do. They are responsible and want to do the best job to be the best teacher. We’re training them to be not just the best, but an effective teacher.”
Taylor speaks of her students proudly: “My students in the clinical field are ready. We’re all doing the best we can. We’re always here to serve, and my students are making a difference—that’s what all teachers are here for.”
CARING FOR THE CLASS OF 2020
By Sarah Gray
Usually, spring is a time of celebration and reflection, a time to acknowledge progress and look forward to the next chapter. Students advance to the next grade, prom is held, and seniors prepare to walk across the stage for graduation.
But the spring of 2020 was no usual time.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order mandating that schools remain closed for the remainder of the academic year meant school districts were left with many questions regarding end-of-year events, especially senior-specific celebrations. As of this writing, districts across the state had postponed or outright canceled junior and senior proms.
There is, however, little shortage of celebrities aiming to fill the void: “The Office” actor John Krasinski, who started a YouTube show called “Some Good News,” held a virtual prom for the class of 2020. Promposals, decorations, and formal wear were all encouraged as celebrities including Chance the Rapper, Billie Eilish, and The Jonas Brothers jumped on the video call to perform. (The virtual prom is now archived on YouTube.)
Graduation ceremonies were another matter. On May 5, TEA released guidelines for four different types of graduations: completely virtual ceremonies; hybrid ceremonies mixing video and in-person celebrations; vehicle ceremonies where students and families wait in their cars as students are recognized one at a time; or outdoor, in-person ceremonies. That last pathway includes a few caveats: For rural counties who have an attestation described in the governor’s report on reopening Texas, an outdoor ceremony could take place between May 15–31, and for everyone else, an outdoor ceremony could take place on or after June 1.
Before this guidance, though, Texas school districts did pretty well on their own to creatively celebrate seniors. Marshall ISD announced its top 10 student ranking via Facebook Live. Buffalo ISD off I-45 put up signs on telephone poles featuring senior yearbook photos. In Wylie outside Dallas, high school principal Virdie Montgomery visited all 612 seniors in person, a journey that took him 12 days and racked up 800 miles on his car.
Lockhart ISD rounded up the community for a “Senior Honk Line” on May 1. Seniors in decorated vehicles honked and waved at community members who turned out to offer congratulations and support.
Georgetown ISD had a similar idea with a parade on May 29 where each senior and their guests were allowed one car for a drive through downtown Georgetown as their names were announced.
Some districts pushed their planned graduation ceremonies out to July or August, while others followed the motto of “the bigger, the better,” where better means “safer”: School districts in Denton County are now holding graduation ceremonies at Texas Motor Speedway, which has a seating capacity of 181,655.
“We made this decision after much consideration and discussion with campus leaders, student leaders, and district leadership,” Lewisville ISD said in a released statement. “This was the only option for which Denton County officials could guarantee their approval. It was made clear to us that our alternate graduation plans may be cancelled or only allowed to proceed with little or no audience present, depending on health guidelines. We decided not to take the risk, and to go with the sure option.”
The ceremony will be broadcast on the speedway’s 12-story-tall, 218-foot-wide video board as friends and families watch from parked cars in the infield of the racetrack. District officials anticipate that every student will be able to walk across the field and receive a diploma, hands free.
But whatever the case, whatever the decision, and wherever the district, the public education community worked nonstop to ensure milestones were met with the care and celebration Texas students deserved—pandemic be darned.
All information presented is accurate as of May 22, 2020.