Four weeks into the 2020-21 school year, Burnet County parents and students have a feel for the new normal under COVID-19 regulations, whether kids are attending class on campus or remotely, as everyone was forced to do in the spring when campuses shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Burnet High School junior Ryan Behrens only saw one option for himself: in-person learning.
“With in-person, it makes it easier to learn if you need help from the teacher,” he explained. “The added bonus is seeing your friends every day.”
Jessamyn Putnam chose the in-person option for her twin sons, Liam and Connor McDonald, sixth-graders at Marble Falls Middle School. She considered a number of issues when making her decision, including the lack of reliable broadband internet in their home and the social and emotional well-being of her sons.
“Everyone is different, and you have to look at what’s best for your kids,” Putnam said. “They very much needed to go back to school. They needed to see their friends.”
In-person learning was not the choice for everyone. Becca Gutierrez Schafer and her daughter, Isabel, stuck with remote learning, something the Marble Falls Middle School student quickly adapted to in the spring.
“Izzy is a very bright student, and she’s a very serious student,” Gutierrez Schafer said. “She’s very self-motivated and very self-regulated, so she’s going to find a way to be successful in her studies.”
For her family, the choice came down to concerns over the novel coronavirus and the possibility of a future school shutdown.
Behrens said his Burnet High School classwork is much tougher than it was in the spring, something administrators said would be the case. Over the summer, both Marble Falls Independent School District and Burnet Consolidated ISD planned for a more rigorous fall curriculum than could be put together on an emergency basis in the spring, when decisions to reopen were happening week to week.
Attending Behrens’ classes are both in-person and remote students, who participate through online apps such as Zoom.
Of course, students on campuses follow COVID-19 health and safety protocols, including wearing face coverings and social distancing. Behrens said that, going into the year, he was a little worried about wearing face coverings, but he’s adjusted.
“They give you breaks,” he said.
Having to wear face coverings was one of the biggest concerns for mother Shelly Denton, who has a freshman, Dash, and a junior, Karley, at Burnet High School.
“Our main concern was the masks,” she said. “How are they going to wear the masks.”
Denton said they have struggled to find one that is comfortable for her daughter.
One of the challenges for her sons was lunchtime. Limiting the number of students in the lunchroom at one time has led to more lunch periods. Liam and Connor have lunch at 10:30 a.m., which is too early. They are always hungry before the end of the school day
“This is all new territory for the schools as well,” Denton said. “And I think they’re doing the best they can.”
Another change to which students have adapted is how they navigate hallways between classes. Putnam pointed out that at Marble Falls Middle School, halls are restricted to one direction. Sometimes, she added, it makes it challenging for kids, her boys included, to make it to their next class on time.
Where there might be challenges as far as lunchtimes, face coverings, and hallway passages, one thing they all seemed pleased with is the academic work, whether in-person or remote.
Putnam said her sons’ teachers have done a remarkable job. Her boys participate in the STEAM academy at the middle school, which uses project-based learning and collaboration. With COVID-19 restrictions, student collaboration seemed like an impossible feat.
“The teachers have found ways to do it,” Putnam said. “If they assign a student to actually do the build or work with the materials, that’s the only student who touches the actual project. Thanks to the teachers, it still allows them to do group work.”
Gutierrez Schafer’s daughter, Izzy, is also in the STEAM academy, but she participates from home.
“One of the things I’ve been impressed with is how the teachers have provided ways for kids who are learning remotely or in class to work together on projects,” Gutierrez Schafer said. “I feel her teachers have done a great job making her feel engaged and a part of her community.”
Parents and students both stressed the importance of students having a community to which to belong. Despite the restrictions, they are making that work.
“Izzy and her friends have found ways to connect,” Gutierrez Schafer said. “One of her friends, who also is remote learning, invited her to have lunch (virtually) on the first day.”
Several more friends, on-campus and remote learners, have since joined them for lunch. They set up a private Zoom meeting and enjoy meals together.
Each family seem satisfied with their learning selections. But if an increase of COVID-19 cases again shuts down campuses, Putnam said her family will find a way to make distance learning work.
“It wouldn’t be the best way for us, but we did it in the spring, so we’ll figure it out,” she said.