DALLAS — Keene ISD returned to school on Aug. 4. Moving forward, Superintendent Ricky Stephens has one message for Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency.
“I just ask them to stay consistent, stay steady and don’t yo-yo us around and they’ve done a fairly good job of that,” he said on Y’all-itics. “We fear every Tuesday and Thursday of getting some new guidance that changes what we’ve already been doing, I’ll be honest with you.”
Stephens talked with the Jasons on this week's episode of Y'all-itics. To listen to the full episode, subscribe where you get your podcasts:
More than a week into their grand back-to-school experiment, Keene ISD has yet to record a positive COVID case, though a teacher did test positive the week before school started.
But kids have gone to the nurse with symptoms that mimic COVID-19. Those illnesses turned out to be strep throat, food poisoning and an allergic reaction to chocolate milk.
There’s been one development that surprised Stephens. He says an estimated 85% of the students are showing up with masks already on.
“I know all summer long, I was really afraid that we would have a battle with our kids about putting those masks on. That it would be like the old belt policy, or your ID badge policy, where all day long you’d be saying ‘pull up your mask,’ ‘pull up your mask,’” he said.
And at the end of the first week, the superintendent met with a small group of teachers to talk about how things went. One concern stood out: some teachers didn’t feel like they were reaching kids at home the same way they were reaching kids in the classroom.
“But there is a difference in looking a kid who’s 10 feet away from you in the eyes and seeing their reflection, seeing how they take subject matter, seeing what kind of day they’re having,” Stephens said. “There is a difference in that and looking through a computer screen at a student.”
While he says that will continue to be a work-in-progress, the instruction itself doesn’t change between virtual and in-person learning. It’s just harder when you can’t look at a student directly or walk up to them.
They've also noticed that the new safety procedures do eat into instruction time during the school day. It takes time, for instance, to sanitize a desk. Or to check roll with the kids who are learning from home.
“We really feel that even though it eats up some of that 45 minutes, the 40 or the 35 that we’re getting is still way better than if they were all at home,” said Stephens.
As for the changing guidance from the state – one of Stephen’s biggest complaints – the president of the state’s largest teachers’ association agrees it has been all over the place.
“When school districts started planning, they were following certain criteria. And then, that was changed. And then they started following the new changes. And that was changed,” Ovidia Molina said on Y’all-itics.
The Texas State Teachers Association is also concerned about Abbott’s claims that there is plenty of personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools, including 60 million masks.
“So understanding that Texas has over 5 million students, when you break down the math, even for a person that’s a history teacher, not a math teacher, you can readily make the math work and say that’s about 10 masks, 11 masks per student," said Molina. "And depending on what grade level you are, I don’t think you can even hold onto a mask the whole day.”
Molina wants to know what happens after two weeks. And if the students use all of those masks, what about all of the school employees? Even if there isn’t enough equipment, Molina says districts can’t shut down because of the rules and potential loss of state funding.
Back in Keene ISD, Stephens estimates he’s receiving five to 10 calls a day from superintendents across the state. He has one piece of advice for all of them:
“Don’t be surprised when all of a sudden, things come up in the middle of the day that can shake you. If you’re making decisions based on data, you’re making decisions based on what you think is best for you kids and your community, I think you’re going to sleep good at night and go forward with it.”
As this grand experiment continues, if you’re a superintendent reopening in the coming days and you need advice, Stephens is accepting calls.