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LESSONS LEARNED | Coronavirus forces some East Texas school districts to break early for Thanksgiving

Eustace and Gilmer ISDs made the decision to extend Thanksgiving break for the safety of their students and staff. They're hoping for a healthier return on Nov. 30.

GILMER, Texas — Thanksgiving started early for several districts in East Texas. Eustace and Gilmer ISD are two of the districts making that decision for the health and safety of students and staff amid surging coronavirus cases. 

They are hoping the longer break will help them start on a healthier track when students return on November 30.

"We realized that this year, we could be looking at some perhaps extended breaks because of the COVID,” Dr. Coy Holcombe said.

Dr. Coy Holcombe, Superintendent at Eustace ISD says they built in 11 extra days into the schedule this year, which is more than in a traditional year, but 2020 is anything but traditional for schools across East Texas.

“You know, we've always taken two or three days or a day off here or there for bad weather or the flu and we were okay with that, but we knew one or two days were not going to be enough with COVID. So, we tried to make good use of the extra days, we put them back to back against the holiday, to really try to give our kids a chance that were on quarantine to come back and give the kids and staff members that were were positive with the virus to also be able to come back,” Holcombe said.

Eustace students started their Thanksgiving holiday a week early on November 16. The Eustace ISD COVID-19 dashboard shows, at last report, they had 12 active student cases and two active staff cases, but 129 students were in quarantine along with nine staff members.

“It's unlike anything that we've really had to deal with before because we can make all these plans and we can put all these policies and procedures in place, but the coronavirus doesn't follow any of those plans and procedures. It will do what it does and it's very good at what it does. All we can do is try to adapt and to try to stay a little bit ahead of it," Holcombe said.

Also, in response to an increase in coronavirus cases, Gilmer ISD gave students a half day last Thursday and Friday off, making those staff workdays instead. 

"It's a 10 day break now instead of like a nine, seven day break and so it just kind of matched that quarantine period for people that are positive. We're hoping with that kind of separation, people get over what they've gotten and just come back in a in a healthy manner, I hope," Rickey Albritton, Gilmer ISD Superintendent, said.

Superintendent Rickey Albritton says they've already finished round one of deep cleaning and disinfecting campuses with another round scheduled before students return to campus.

“We're just going to go back in and disinfect with nobody in the building two more times,"  Albritton said. 

School leaders explain it’s been a challenging year managing COVID-19, virtual learners and students on campus.

“It's a lot," Albritton said.  See, when we started the year, we're focusing on three words, endurance, flexibility and grace. That's kind of what our mantra has been this year. Number one, just make it. It's been very taxing, especially for the teachers, just trying to figure out how to manage really three types of groups of kids. You've got kids that came back after a three month break in the spring, they were a little bit behind. Then, we had some kids that didn't come back for the first six weeks, and then we had another set of kids that came back when we ended remote learning."

Both districts are asking students and staff to remember social distancing during the holiday season.

“That's probably our greatest fear —families getting together. We expect that, in fact, most of the times when we do have quarantines they’re because a family member has gotten it somewhere else,” Albritton said. “That's the number one rule we tell them, if they can stay out of that six foot circle, they're protecting themselves a lot better, wear their mask, do everything you can to protect yourself during this timeframe. I really do believe that the schools have not been that place of spread.

Holcombe is also thinking ahead to the Christmas break. "We're hoping, hoping that we can get three solid weeks of instruction here with this break that we're having now, knowing that after those three weeks, we've got another two week break at christmas. If circumstances dictate, and we are not going to be able to get those three weeks in, we’ve got more kids in quarantine now than we had before, we're gonna have to make some decisions on that. We're gonna have to be flexible and just go with what the the numbers are telling us to do.

"Coronavirus and its seriousness really hit home at Eustace ISD.

“Eustace ISD lost a staff member to COVID in the summer, so there was no one that had to convince us how serious it was. We took it seriously from the start and and I cannot say enough about our our students, our staff, our community,” Holcombe said.

School leaders, teachers, students and parents working together to get through the pandemic.

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