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TEXARKANA, Texas — It has been an unprecedented year for school districts across the country.

Whether it be transitioning elementary students to virtual learning or keeping track of and attempting to limit the spread of COVID-19 cases in districts with more than 1,000 students on campus, it's safe to say this has been a year like no other.

To get a better idea of just how challenging 2020 has been and what's to come for Texarkana public school districts, the Gazette reached out to local superintendents. Three of the four districts — Liberty-Eylau; Texarkana, Texas; and Pleasant Grove — responded.

Q: What were the biggest challenges this year and how did your district met those challenges?

RONNIE THOMPSON

L-EISD SUPERINTENDENT RONNIE THOMPSON:

"Virtual Teaching and learning has been a challenge for both staff and students. Access to reliable technology in some areas of our district has made it difficult for students. Teachers have also had to alter what they do in both the classroom and online, essentially doubling their work. But even with difficulty, they have never given our students anything less than their best. I am proud of how dedicated they have been.

Another challenge has been the changing COVID protocols from different agencies. Local health authorities, regional health authorities, TEA and the CDC all routinely send new and changing recommendations for schools. Sometimes those even seem to contradict each other."

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School administrator Autumn Smith Thomas has spent 28 years in public education —23 of those at Texarkana Independent School District. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)

TISD ACTING SUPERINTENDENT AUTUMN THOMAS:

"Our biggest challenge for the year has been how to effectively engage students in their learning, whether remote, on-campus with health and safety protocols, or simultaneously. Adapting to the remote learning environment for students, staff and parents has been difficult. To that end, we feel that we have met the challenge as successfully as possible.

TISD implemented Professional Development programs for teachers in a virtual setting so that we could model the strategies that they would be using throughout the semester. We made sure we communicated with parents, students and staff in all ways possible in order for all of us to know where we are and where we are going. TISD provided additional resources for remote based students such as web-based intervention support, additional technology hardware, online curriculum and software programs."

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Chad Pirtle

PGISD SUPERINTENDENT CHAD PIRTLE

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, the goal has always been to keep our schools open and as normal as possible. Our staff and students have been champions by wearing their masks, social distancing, and washing their hands so that we can continue to be in school and provide extracurricular activities. 2020 provided Pleasant Grove ISD with opportunities for growth and positive change.

Virtual learning strengthened our knowledge of technology and use of communication. Our students who participated in virtual learning were able to receive the same instruction at home as our students in our classrooms. The hard work of our staff and their strategic use of technology contributed to providing high levels of learning for all students."

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Q: What are some lessons you've learned — whether it be how to handle COVID protocols, virtual learning, etc. — and what are some adjustments to be made in the second half of the school year after the holiday break?

THOMPSON:

"By establishing and consistently following protocols we were able to maintain stability with teaching and learning. We have had very low case numbers and that can be attributed to how well our staff and students followed our safety measures.

We have also learned to show patience and trust in the processes that are in place. None of us have ever dealt with anything like this before. But, we all stayed focused on our purpose and that helped us keep kids safe while still delivering the best education we can."

THOMAS:

"The key lesson we knew going into the school year was that face-to-face on-site instruction is by far the best academic setting for students. Undoubtedly, there was great concern when we entered the fall semester with 58% students choosing on-site instruction and 42% choosing remote learning. As the six-week intervals progressed, we have found our percentages of on-site students to increase with our remote learning number of students decreasing to 83% and 17%, respectively.

Recent benchmark testing shows a decreased difference in the scores for those that choose remote learning. We will now begin addressing the issues of academic regression and how we further assist remote students and their parents to make up for any loss that has occurred.

From leadership meeting discussions, we know going into the Spring semester our safety protocols for students and staff will remain the same. Texas Education Agency also recently sent new guidelines for quarantining those that have been exposed. These guidelines will be implemented effective Jan. 5."

PIRTLE:

"This remains true, the Pleasant Grove community always partners with Pleasant Grove ISD to provide the best education for our students, especially during challenging times. Next, our team has learned the importance of flexibility. The conditions of the pandemic changed so often in the beginning months, and flexibility was vital to the success of our team and school. Lastly, our team has learned the importance of staying true to our mission of ensuring high levels of learning for all students. It is easy to get distracted by the pandemic, but our administration team, principals, and teachers have been champions in continuing our mission and providing the best education in the state of Texas to our students.

At this time, no adjustments will be in 2021 regarding COVID protocols. Pleasant Grove ISD's current COVID protocols have been successful in continuing in the education of our students and keeping our campuses open."

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Q. What's to come, and what's your outlook on next year?

THOMPSON:

"I hope that the coming vaccine will help calm fears many still have regarding COVID and that we can begin to regain a sense of normalcy.

I also know that we will stay the course with our protocols until the pandemic is declared over."

THOMAS:

"What's to come is an unknown. There is promise as we hear of the vaccines that are being made available and that in turn gives us great hope that the 2021-22 school year could be back to normal and all students will be back on campus.

This pandemic has made us stronger than ever together given what all we have learned and have went through. Our teachers are even more better prepared and have found strength in themselves due to new skills learned and teaching in ways that they could never imagine. I believe the teamwork and inter-dependency among all has been key to our success."

PIRTLE:

"While we are not certain of what is to come in 2021, we are certain that Pleasant Grove ISD will be responsible, flexible, and focused on ensuring high levels of learning for all students no matter the circumstances. Pleasant Grove ISD is focused on taking care of our students and staff, and we look forward to welcoming our students back to school on Tuesday, Jan. 5."

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