By Jim Rice
Jim Rice was elected to Position No. 3 in May of 2010 and has served continuously in that position since. He was elected Board Secretary in June 2011 and Board President in 2012, serving two consecutive terms in that office. He currently chairs the Board’s Audit Committee and serves as President-Elect of the Texas Association of School Boards. He is not speaking on behalf of Fort Bend ISD or the Board of Trustees as these comments are his alone.
It was just earlier this year that we all began to hear stories of a new virus that threatened to become a pandemic. In March, it indeed developed into a full-fledged threat to our society.
During spring break of 2020, Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Dr. Charles Dupre and his staff were hearing of the growing nationwide concern related to COVID-19. Many families, teachers, and staff of Fort Bend ISD travelled during spring break – including a large percentage who travelled internationally – only increasing the risk of exposure. Our schools by their very nature contain hundreds of students who gather in classrooms and lunchrooms daily creating a perfect storm in terms of incubating and passing along a virus.
Dr. Dupre and his staff soon realized that in the interest of public health and safety we could not return students to class on Monday March 16th.
Many of us have lived through weather related events which have closed schools for days or even weeks. This was something different, a novel event that no one could have foreseen. Over the next several weeks it became clear that Fort Bend ISD could not resume normal classes for the school year while being able to guarantee the safety of students, teachers, and staff.
Once student and staff safety were addressed, a more complicated challenge was at hand – Dr. Dupre and his staff had to effectively implement online instruction in extremely short order. There was no opportunity to bring all teachers in together for development and preparation on how to deliver online instruction. This training of our teachers and staff had to be done virtually, through telecommunication platforms while they feverishly worked from home.
Fortunately, FBISD had previously developed the foundations for online instruction through Schoology and other programs and had in place the executive leadership capacity to immediately launch an intense effort to utilize these online platforms. Meanwhile, teachers and staff reached out to students and parents to inform them that classes would continue online and how they could access same. All this was impressively completed in a few short weeks.
This pandemic has forced not only Fort Bend ISD but every school district in the country to develop new methods of online instruction. Normally, when students are in the classroom with their teacher, they are engaging in synchronous (or at the same time) learning. Fort Bend ISD discovered that this would not always work for our teachers and students. Many of our teachers have children of their own at home which require them to be both parent to their own children and teacher to their students at the same time. Thus “asynchronous” teaching models were developed enabling students who could not attend the “live” lesson to view the lesson later in the day, oftentimes with their parents.
Other challenges presented themselves that had to be dealt with. Many of Fort Bend ISD students qualify for the federal government’s meal plan. Accordingly, the Fort Bend ISD child nutrition staff went into action. At present they are providing over 10,000 breakfast and lunch meals at twenty-three school locations across the district. In addition, many charitable organizations also stepped in to help – notably “Be a Champion” which is providing almost 6,000 dinners per day to our needy students.
Additionally, not all students have computers or internet access in their homes. Fort Bend ISD stepped up again. As of today, Fort Bend ISD has distributed 6,740 laptops and 1,465 WIFI “hotspots” to families which are serving over 12,000 students. Almost 98% of our students are now engaging in online instruction.
Just as Covid19 has altered school environments, it has also put a strain on the personal life of staff, students, and parents. Fort Bend ISD ‘s support has not been limited to education – call centers have been helping students and parents navigate stress resulting from the uncertainties and challenges of COVID-19 as we seek to support the social and emotional needs of our students.
Though these achievements are notable for an organization the size of Fort Bend ISD, they are far from perfect. The Texas Education Agency has suspended the required STARR testing, class ranking and other measurements for this school year. As Dr. Dupre and staff prepare for the 2020-2021 school year, they must face the possibility that we may not be able to return to school in August or even that subsequent shelters-in-place may be imposed later on. They know we must continue to develop online instruction teaching methods and testing to ensure student academic growth and mastery of the various subjects and are already hard at work to ensure we are prepared for this or any eventuality.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to embrace a new normal. This event is the harbinger of new ways of thinking and doing things that will impact all of us – including teaching and learning.
Working together – students, teachers, parents, and community – we will overcome these challenges so that our children, pride of our families and our nation, will continue to learn and grow into young men and women of character and purpose.