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As Texas public schools resume classes this fall during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, families have a choice: in-person or remote learning. 

Highland Lakes school district officials want those considering remote learning to understand it will be much different than the last nine weeks of the previous year.

“In a nutshell, the spring distance learning was emergency distance learning,” said Dr. Rachel Jones, assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at Burnet Consolidated Independent School District. “Our teachers only had one week to plan for distance learning for the rest of the year. They couldn’t even meet on campus. This fall, it’s going to be much different.

“The workload will be very different,” she added. “It will be full-on school.”

BCISD and Marble Falls ISD will offer both in-person and distance learning options as required by the Texas Education Agency

MFISD Superintendent Dr. Chris Allen said remote instruction this past spring was just to keep students learning. This year, however, the remote option will be at the same level as in-class learning.

“As the state has laid out, the curriculum for students who are learning remotely has to be at the appropriate level of rigor as if they were in class,” he said. 

It also will be more structured than in the spring, and daily attendance will be required. 

Jones said remote students in BCISD will follow a daily schedule and will be assigned to classes. 

MFISD students in third grade through high school also will follow a daily schedule and attend classes via Zoom or a similar online platform. Allen said remote students will be able to interact with teachers and classmates and ask questions in real time. 

“It gives those kids online a sense of community,” Allen said. 

He added that elementary school classes will be less structured than the upper grades, and teachers will have more flexibility. MFISD students in pre-kindergarten through second grade who are learning remotely would have more asynchronous learning than older students.

Students who start classes remotely but transition to in-person instruction during the year will be placed with the same teachers, Allen said.

Jones said BCISD is taking into consideration families with more than one student who must share technology or have different needs as the district plans for the new year. Parents of more than one child enrolled in school can choose a different learning model for each child. 

Remote learning will require regular internet access, which Allen hopes parents will consider when making their decision. 

Both MFISD and BCISD have free Wi-Fi access points. In the spring, MFISD also parked Wi-Fi-enabled buses at several locations across the district. However, Allen said, this probably will not work this time around as the buses will need to be used for student transportation. Also, distance learning will be more interactive and structured, so sitting near Wi-Fi access points all day might not be feasible or comfortable.

Another big change is teacher training. 

Jones said BCISD teachers basically had a week in the spring to switch from in-person instruction to remote instruction. And, she pointed out, they made the switch with no in-person meetings or training. 

Although campuses were closed in the spring by Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, teachers had to work even harder, keeping up with individual students and planning remote lessons in a difficult time. 

Currently, both districts are working to ensure teachers have the best training and tools available before classes resume.

BCISD just pushed back its start date from August 17 to August 20 to give teachers more time to prepare. MFISD classes start August 19.

Both Jones and Allen also acknowledged the challenges parents are facing, balancing jobs and their children’s education. 

“We know it’s not an easy decision,” Jones said about choosing remote or in-person learning. “Every family and every student is unique.”

If families find that remote learning is not working for them, the districts include a ramp back into in-person learning. Allen told the MFISD board of trustees on July 20 that parents can switch from remote to in-person learning at the end of the four-week, nine-week, and semester grading periods. Parents who wish to change from in-person to remote learning, he said, can make those changes almost at any point with a few days’ written notice to the child’s campus.

While much of the emphasis is on students’ academic success, Jones said parents should not forget the emotional and social aspects. Remote learners can often feel isolated, even if they have online interactions with teachers and classmates. 

“It might be helping a student find an area of passion or an extracurricular activity,” Jones said. 

Under TEA and University Interscholastic guidelines, distance learners can still participate in UIL and other extracurricular activities. Parents and students can also look for non-school-sponsored activities, she added.

Even as the districts formulate plans, administrators and staff keep in mind that things can and will change. Patience and grace are two things school leaders are asking from the community as the new year begins.

“We know this is tough for everyone. We know this is a very emotional thing,” Allen added, “but I want everyone to know that our staff, our teachers, our principals are working so hard on this. We love our students, and we’ll do everything we can for them.”

BCISD officials ask that parents notify the district no later than Monday, July 27, on if their child will learn in class or remotely. Parents can make their selection via Skyward Family Access. If no decision is noted, the student will be assigned to on-campus learning. Parents will have through August 6 to amend their selection. The district also has a Smart Restart plan on its website where parents can find more information. 

MFISD asks that parents begin letting officials know their choice starting Monday, July 27, the first day of returning student registration.