Despite many questions heading into the 2020-21 academic year during a pandemic, Highland Lakes school district officials believe things are off to a strong start.
“It was a great first day of school,” said Burnet Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Keith McBurnett. “It felt good to see teachers and students back at school. Besides the face coverings and hand washing, it felt like we were taking steps toward normal.”
It was definitely a first day like no other.
Marble Falls ISD began the 2020-21 school year Aug. 19; BCISD on Aug. 20. The last time Texas schools held in-person learning was mid-March.
WASH YOUR HANDS
MFISD Superintendent Dr. Chris Allen said teachers and staff spent the first two days going over COVID-19 health and safety protocols with students, including washing hands and social distancing in hallways.
“You could see elementary teachers literally instructing their children on the proper way of hand washing,” he said. “We were working on keeping kids social distanced with spots on floors and dots on walls. They were doing the zombie walk — stretching their arms in front of them — for social distancing. You could see a clear proactive instruction. You could see it in action.”
And hands weren’t the only things being cleaned. Districts enacted plans for disinfecting high-touch surfaces across campuses.
ON THE BUS
Drivers are sanitizing their buses after they drop off students and before they go on their next route. All buses have hand sanitizer, and passengers are reminded to use it frequently.
The number of students riding buses has dropped compared to pre-COVID-19 times. Marble Falls ISD is seeing 50-70 percent of its normal ridership. BCISD has capped the number of students per 77-passenger bus to 50.
On BCISD’s first day, McBurnett boarded a bus at 5:40 a.m. for a ride-along before visiting each campus.
“Our transportation team are our heroes,” he said. “We cover 700 square miles, and we don’t have a lot of traditional neighborhoods with dense populations. On the route I was on, we drove at least 20 minutes before we picked up our first kid. There were lots of stops for one (student) and two (students) at a time.”
MFISD didn’t cap the number of riders. Allen believes parents will innately take care of the issue.
“Part of my strategy in thinking of planning is to trust the community,” he said. “I trust the community to find equilibrium. I haven’t put (a rider) cap on buses. We asked people ‘What do you plan to do?’ The community controls the cap we need without us imposing it. So, how long will buses run at reduced capacity? For as long as the community feels the need for it to be the case.”
CONNECTING FROM HOME
Under Texas Education Agency guidelines, school districts must offer a remote-learning option to families. Both MFISD and BCISD reported approximately 30 percent of their students learning from home. BCISD distance learners began Aug. 20 with their in-person counterparts. MFISD at-home students started Aug. 21, two days later than students on campus.
To prepare for distance learning, MFISD increased its bandwidth “fivefold,” Allen said. The school district ordered 3,000 Chromebooks to support remote learners as well as 300 Wi-Fi hotspots for families that don’t have high-speed internet access. Several internet providers have told Allen they are willing to work with families on getting home broadband.
BCISD also ordered 300 hotspots.
“A couple of weeks ago, we sent out surveys,” McBurnett said. “Ten percent of our families said they don’t have (an at-home) internet connection or it’s not sufficient. We want to be able to help those parents.”
PLANNING FOR SCHOOL
Both superintendents praised their staff and board members for adjusting their schedules and summer vacations so they could plan for a unique fall semester.
“We feel nothing but supported, and that has made the job of administration and planning to address this much easier,” BCISD’s McBurnett said.
“I want to express how appreciative the district is of the extra-high level of cooperation we’ve received from students and parents with their health and safety,” MFISD’s Allen said. “We appreciate parents being patient at drop-off and pickup lines. We feel extremely supported right now. I can’t say enough how proud I am of the staff for their high-level execution of the health and safety protocols.”