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LESSONS LEARNED | Planning for a tough school year with extra time, training

Many East Texas districts started school on time, but Van ISD pushed school back a couple weeks. It was a thoughtful, strategic decision, but did it help?

TYLER, Texas — You hear it all the time, "What a difference a day makes." Well, in Van ISD's case, what a difference a couple of weeks make.

School leaders realized early on what a tough year it was going to be, so they started giving teachers even more training and support.

"Before we started school, we decided pretty quickly, 'hey, let's take all of the professional development time that we have usually scheduled, scattered throughout the year, and let's bring that to the front'," explained Van ISD Superintendent Don Dunn. "And let's really train our teachers and give them all the training that they can to where they, you know, they can feel as prepared as possible for this new paradigm." 

Dunn turned the typical week-and-a-half of staff development into three weeks before students ever stepped on campus.

In 2020, there is just more for teachers and staff to contend with — new health and safety guidelines to help stop the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

Also, balancing both virtual teaching duties with everyday classes and all the technology that comes with that.

"But on week two, our instructional technology team began the training for the virtual learning," said Dunn. "We spent five days of intense training that week."

Then in week three, the district gave teachers the chance to work on their lesson plans, get comfortable with the previous week's training and made the instructional technology staff available to help them with any issues they encountered.

"That one week of just sitting there, being able to, you know, take a deep breath after some intense training, and to be able to soak it in and say, all right, how can I use this?," Dunn said. "You know, how is this going to benefit me and my students as we go forward? I think it was incredible for our teachers. I think it really allowed them to, you know, get over a lot of anxiety about, you know, the upcoming school year."

Van opted for asynchronous remote learning on Google Classroom since teachers are students were already comfortable with that platform.

"What we've done is we've developed a virtual learning period, at the end of the day, from 3 - 3:45 p.m., for every teacher in the district, that way our teachers can, you know, teach their kids who are on campus during the school day, and then have that 45-minute block, where it's just totally virtual, you know, where they can check on their kids and make sure, you know, other kids are doing what they need to be doing," Dunn said.

About 23% of Van ISD students are virtual right now. 

"Which is a lot, but I have to I have to say this, you know, we've been a one-to-one district for, I guess, this is year number eight," Dunn said. "So, our teachers and our students are comfortable using, you know, the technology in the classroom and in learning."

But they learned an important lesson from last spring — just providing a computer for their students wasn't enough. About 60% did not have connectivity.

"And so the teachers were having to prepare half the lessons for the virtual kids and then they were doing hard copy, paper packets for the other," Dunn said. "Both paradigms were not the same, you know, the digital learning was much more robust than than the hardcopy packets and it was more busy work. So, it was an issue. You know, one thing that we wanted to do is we knew real early that we were going to burn our teachers out if we stayed in that paradigm."

So, the school board decided to make a big investment in their students, even before, the Texas education agency offered Project Connectivity to districts.

"To the credit of our our school board, last May, we we went to them and said, look, here's what we would really like to do." Dunn said. "We want to purchase brand new devices for every kid in the entire district. For Pre-K all the way through fifth grade, we're going to purchase new iPads and from sixth grade through 12th grade, we're going to we're going to purchase Chromebooks, but both the iPads and the Chromebooks, we want to purchase them with LTE service in them. That way, it doesn't matter if we close down, we, our kids will be able to have internet access and we can we can do the work remotely."

Dunn says they're down to only three children now who sometimes encounter trouble connecting, and even those students usually can get a signal outside or just down the street.

Planning for issues like that, and just a tough year in general, really laid the groundwork for every decision Van ISD made and continues to make based on what we know about the virus day to day.

"We've had since March to plan for the school year and I can't tell you how hard we work and the people that we have with us who worked so hard to get ready for this school year," Dunn said. The absolute unsung heroes in our district are our custodians. They are on the front lines and I am telling you, they are working tirelessly to constantly clean and disinfect every doorknob, every door handle and every desk. They have just been tremendous."

Dunn believes the nurses quick action taking care of students is also helping keep campuses as safe and healthy as possible. He's learned over the last 7 months.

"We have we have an unbelievable staff, who are absolutely sold out to this district, who are sold out to our kids, who are in the kid business, who have hearts for kids, who have you rolled up their sleeves in the time of adversity and gone to work," Dunn said. "And so, you know, that's what causes great things to happen."

Dunn believes teachers will be working harder than ever to build relationships with students, so they can get the most out of this year, whether they're leaning online or in class.

But their work is not done — far from it. The entire district will stay home for a virtual day on October 8 as another layer of preparation to test student and teacher equipment and to ensure students understand how to access and submit assignments virtually.

The district hopes this test run will help them find out what works and what doesn't —  just in case.