There likely hasn’t been a more contentious back-to-school year than 2020, as COVID-related health concerns were met with the need to get students and parents back on track.
Since the start of the pandemic, school officials, teachers, students, and parents have been under never-before-seen pressure to adjust to new teaching and learning environments. And by the summer, the pressure shifted to decide when and how to begin returning to the classrooms.
But what good can come out of such pressure?
Like most districts, Harlingen CISD was tasked with coming up with a back-to-school plan that addressed the many needs and concerns of its community.
Some parents had the ability to continue helping their children learn at home, while others needed the support of the school district and in-person classes to return to work.
After starting the first four weeks of the 2020-21 school year remotely, the district began to offer parents quarterly options for fully remote, face-to-face, or hybrid classes.
But even in the early planning stages, Superintendent Dr. Art Cavazos says the district saw a window of opportunity to not only respond to the pandemic but to use it to address long-standing issues.
“We would carve out time in the middle of planning to discuss what are the opportunities in the middle of a crisis?” Cavazos said. “What are the opportunities that can accelerate our transformation in HCISD?”
Closing the digital gap, for example, had been on HCISD’s list for years. While the issue of access to a device had been addressed at the school level by providing devices and internet connection while at school, the pandemic heightened the need to also address the issue at home.
Like most school districts, HCISD provided hot spots and devices for students to take home. For those who couldn’t access a secure connection, the district opened up campus park-and-learn options to go upload and download assignments and assigned routes for district vehicles with connections to go park at their homes.
But this digital gap doesn’t end at access, Cavazos noted. One of the biggest issues was digital proficiency, in which most students had a huge advantage over their parents and even teachers.
“Some teachers were able to pivot a lot faster because they lived in that digital world,” he said. “Some teachers needed to retool and what we found is that they were able and willing — they just didn’t have the skill.”
Having already identified their digital proficiency over the spring, the district put together a tier system of professional development over the summer to train teachers and start them at their own level.
They also worked on coursework that would be better suited for online needs to support teachers and students.
“Over 300 teachers came together and they became the leaders of leaders,” Cavazos said. “Their charge was to do an Instructional Reset, where the documents and the teaching plans, all of that, was more adapted for students who were going to be remote.”
The district also took advantage of a three-week gap to not only focus on the teaching methods but also to organize a student and parent academy to get everyone adjusted to the different online platforms used for remote learning.
“In the parent academy, there was a session being held on how to support their child in remote learning,” Cavazos said. “We had about 400 parents Zooming into that session at once. So the appetite was there. People wanted to learn, they wanted to engage.”
The training was a good jumpstart for the first four weeks of remote learning, which also prepared parents and students to make the decision of whether or not to transition into the classroom for the following weeks.
While the uncertainty of the pandemic remains a constant at Harlingen CISD and all districts across the state, Cavazos says he is proud of his team’s ability to turn challenges into opportunities.
“Without a pandemic, we may have been tackling these problems for many years,” he said. “There’s a saying that says, ‘in your urgency to rush back to normal, take this quiet time to really think what parts of that normal are worth rushing towards.’”