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Suburban School Districts Reflect On A Semester With COVID-19

The Hays Consolidated Independent School District headquarters.
Gabriel C. Pérez
School districts are taking the Thanksgiving break to reflect on how the first semester of school during a pandemic has gone.

School districts across the state are grappling with how to handle the latest rise in COVID-19 cases. And as the holidays approach, many are concerned about what family gatherings could mean for community spread within schools.

The Thanksgiving break is giving school districts in Hays and Williamson counties a moment to recuperate and to reflect on the months they have endured.

Hays County

Following national and local trends, active COVID-19 cases in Hays Consolidated Independent School District are rising. According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, within the first two weeks of November, new cases jumped from 13 to 26.

Hays CISD Chief Communication Officer Tim Savoy said he’s been getting a lot of questions about whether the school will shut down after Thanksgiving. Local health officials have warned against large gatherings or traveling.

“We have no plans to do any kind of a district-wide return to virtual learning,” he said. “We're still operating on a case-by-case basis.”

Savoy said the district's strategy for preventing community spread is to do "targeted closures" of particular grade levels or classes rather than a "blanket" return to virtual learning for all. He gave the examples of shutting down a particular classroom, grade level or even campus.

“Compared to the spring where everybody was completely shut down because we didn't know much about this virus, I think the knowledge that we've learned since March is going to help us be able to do targeted closures,” Savoy said.

Right now, about 50-60% of students in the district attend school in person, though that changes weekly. The district does its best to accommodate families who end up wanting to return to virtual instruction or vice versa.

"We're trying to have the least amount of disruption as possible and trying to accommodate the different needs of all our different parents and students and families,” Savoy said.

One challenge the district has had to navigate is that students were failing classes at record rates. This year, about 22% of students were failing at least one class, compared to previous years where that same metric hovered around 12%.

Savoy said the district made changes accordingly, like extending the amount of time allowed for students to make up failed assignments from a week to the entire grading period. Hays CISD also hosted several trainings on the school’s virtual learning platform, Schoology, and will host more if needed.

“It's partly expected,” Savoy said, "because this is a disruptive year and it's challenging.”

Cases in nearby San Marcos CISD have remained relatively low, according to Communications Director Andrew Fernandez. Since Sept. 7, when the district started in-person learning, it has had a total of 45 cases – 21 staff members and 24 students.

Fernandez credits the district's COVID-19 precautions, which he said won’t change just because of the holidays.

"When [students] return to campus, the same protocols are going to be in place,” he said.

He urged families to monitor any symptoms closely before returning to school after the break.

Once students do return, the district will start using rapid COVID-19 antigen-based testing, which officials hope will quickly identify and isolate people who are infected before they can spread the virus. The rapid tests mean students or staff waiting for results won't have to accrue so many absences, Fernandez said.

The district also implemented three early-release days this year to do regular deep cleanings of the campuses. The next early release day for SMCISD students is Dec. 11. Fernandez said there are talks of continuing this practice in the spring.

Williamson County

Leander ISD's Area Superintendent Devin Padavil said this year in general has been one of “constant adaptation.”

The first challenge was to implement health and safety protocols, he said, then came ensuring students had a good quality of education in their new environments.

Georgetown ISD Superintendent Fred Brent said it was similar there.

"There was one point in time I thought we might not be here today and have school,” Brent said, “but I think we've handled it as well as anyone can.”

"There was one point in time I thought we might not be here today and have school, but I think we've handled it as well as anyone can.”
Georgetown ISD Superintendent Fred Brent

Both acknowledged the benefit of precautions, but praised the teachers and staff who have implemented them.

“I think the measure that really made the biggest difference is leadership,” Brent said.

He said the work of teachers and staff has kept each school afloat. As some means of repayment, teachers were given extra workdays for planning – without students around.

“I can't overemphasize that enough,” Brent said. “Our campus principals and the teachers worked together to create the best plans they possibly could for their campus under certain guidelines. ... They created very strict protocols that have allowed our kids to keep playing sports and marching in the band.”

GISD has also surveyed teachers throughout the year about their needs. In LISD, Padavil said, teachers have engaged in “listening sessions” where they express their experiences and challenges teaching during a pandemic.

In response, the Board of Trustees last week granted an $800 stipend to full-time LISD employees, and half of that for part-time workers, for personal protective equipment. The district is also giving teachers regular, two-hour early release days for planning.

Both districts display their COVID-19 cases on dashboards that are updated weekly. In GISD, there have been 129 cumulative cases. In LISD, there have been 173 cumulative cases and 2,921 total exposures.

The districts are tracing a majority of their positive cases to activity outside school and not spreading between students.

Brent said he’s thankful the district is able to accommodate students in extracurriculars activities, because they need the outlet. He noted the success of GISD's recent UIL marching competition.

“If we denied our kids those opportunities, they'd have been doing something else with their time outside of school that would be much less healthy,” Brent said. “And they are thriving and they're growing and they're evolving and they're engaging in an experience that only exists for four years of their lifetime then it's gone forever.”

The campuses also have had another commonality: a decline in the enrollment.

With students leaving for home schooling or other options, the districts don't have the numbers they anticipated. Padavil said that's especially reflected with younger learners.

“Our primary concern is trying to reach out to families as much as possible to see if we can get them hooked into school," he said, "because we are concerned about the loss of learning, because we know that that will have an impact on their entire school experience."

Another trend the schools are looking at is student achievement. While more students may be failing classes, Brent cautions people not to place blame on any one factor.

"There is a good indication that we may likely go through some of the toughest months when multiple cases are reported. And we need to make difficult decisions for the sake of our students."
Leander ISD's Area Superintendent Devin Padavil

“We don't want to assume too many things too early,” he said. “But what we do know is this, is that COVID-19 has created a lot of changes in the lives of our students, that we are seeing more students struggle academically during this window. But we don't know the exact cause of that, and we are working to determine that cause. But it's going to be different for each student group and each student individually speaking.”

The districts will be looking to health officials for recommendations on closures. Last week, Williamson County moved to its highest risk phase, signifying there is "uncontrolled community spread" of the virus in the area.

“There is a good indication that we may likely go through some of the toughest months when multiple cases are reported,” Padavil said. “And we need to make difficult decisions for the sake of our students.”

He said this is a time when everyone is being asked to make sacrifices.

"Some of these sacrifices are very important to us, like nothing is more important than family," he said. "But it's extremely important that families try to mitigate the number of people they interact with, because we know that that is the factor that leads to cases being discovered at school.”

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Allyson Ortegon is a former Williamson County reporter for KUT.
Riane Roldan is the Hays County reporter for KUT, focusing on the costs and benefits of suburban growth. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @RianeRoldan.
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