Podcast Transcript: Leaning on Connection to Lead through Crisis

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Dr. Lance Groppel: There are seven million questions to answer about what’s going on right now and making decisions for the fall.  For me, thinking about how do we create change within the structure that is our school systems from a policy standpoint?

Cody Huie: In early June, Lance Groppel – the Executive Director of Instructional Leadership overseeing secondary campuses for Grapevine Colleyville ISD – called up four of his close friends and fellow high school educators to work through some of the pressing questions surrounding the fall semester. 

This group of five check in on a regular basis to talk sports, brag on their kids, or get something heavy off their chests. They initially connected through the Raise Your Hand Texas alumni network, a group of over 1,300 educators sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas to attend training at Harvard University and remain connected as public education thought leaders and practitioners. 

As this unprecedented school year gets underway, you may have wondered what it’s been like for school leaders having to make difficult decisions about health and safety, instruction, and access to learning in a pandemic. In today’s episode, we’re giving you the opportunity to be a fly on the wall for two fascinating conversations where school leaders from across the state plan, prepare and reimagine school for the 20- 21 school year. 

I’m Cody Huie from Raise Your Hand Texas and you’re listening to IntersectEd, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet. 

Groppel: I’m sitting in a middle school classroom right now, there ain’t no way you could get 22 people in this classroom with six feet in between each one of them. So, how do we make that environment work and create flexibility for our kids?

Todd Bloomer: That’s a million dollar question.

Huie: That’s Todd Bloomer the Principal at Churchill High School in North East ISD in San Antonio. 

Dr. Jason Johnston: Who has that space? 22 to 1, 6 feet apart, how big is that room?

Huie: And that’s Jason Johnston, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for Allen ISD in North Texas. 

Groppel: I don’t know. This one’s not very big.

Bloomer: What do you think, Lance, 12 kids in there? If you look around there, 10 to 12?

Groppel: Maybe 15. 

Johnston: 15?

Groppel: Maybe.

Huie: In case you’re curious, Texas Administrative Code specifies that a secondary classroom must provide 28 square feet per student. To ensure, say, a middle school student’s desk is six feet from the nearest student you would need 144 square feet per student. That’s five times larger than that state standard.

Johnston: And the whole kicker is no matter what plan you design, as long as the six-foot requirement is still in there, you’re talking about 14 kids on a school bus. How do you get them there?

Bloomer: We’re gonna be driving the bus, boys. Admin’s going to be picking folks up.

JohnstonYou’re going to pick up three kids and bring them with you, let’s go.

Bloomer: Anybody in your neighborhood, come on.

Huie: While they attempt to make light of the situation, the health guidelines make transportation a particularly difficult challenge. If students from different households have to sit six feet apart, a bus that might normally hold 70 students is down to 15-20 students. That means making the same bus route multiple times and delaying the start of classes or exploring staggered start times.

Dr. Bobby Martinez: Traditionally, we try to keep elementary kids with elementary kids. 

Huie: This new voice belongs to Bobby Martinez, Executive Director for School Leadership for Alvin ISD, located south of Houston.

Martinez: Even with buses, looking at all levels, possibly more kinda zones and neighborhoods as opposed to just the elementary ride with elementary only?

Johnston: That’s a good idea, man.

Martinez: I know we’re exploring some of that here.

Johnston: I can see a blend of elementary-middle, and then also middle-high based off of zones.

Bloomer: I think from a standpoint of what needs to change is state law says you got to be in attendance 90% of the time. 

Huie: Funding for Texas public schools is determined, in part, by attendance. One of the biggest concerns administrators have right now is how attendance and seat time will be counted, and subsequently how budgets will be determined for the next year. If a student or teacher has been exposed to the coronavirus, the whole class may have to quarantine for two weeks.

Bloomer: There used to be a badge of honor for guys like us to not take any sick days during the year, and now it’ll be badges of honor to stay home when you’re not feeling well or a family member’s not feeling well. I think those ramifications are crazy because we all know that having a great teacher in every classroom is what we have to do. Without having that great teacher, education and instruction falls off. 

Johnston: From a teaching standpoint, let’s just say that you were notified that you were exposed to someone with coronavirus, and therefore, had to self-quarantine for 14 days. So if you’re a classroom teacher, if you’re feeling well and willing, you’re actually teaching your class from a remote location that there’s increased flexibility, who is where when the learning is occurring, and how you staff that, and how you manage that from a classroom management standpoint.

Huie: Administrators are also concerned about how the downturn in the state economy and low oil prices will affect the education budget at a time when operation costs are going to increase. Texas schools received an infusion of funds with the passage of an historic school finance bill in the 2019 Legislative Session. But some estimates show 1.8 million in total additional expenses needed for an average district to reopen nationwide. 

Lee Vi Moses: It’s almost like a perfect storm. You know, we just got house bill three passed, we just got increased in funding, and now we have this COVID situation happen, and then oil prices are in the tank right now. 

Huie: That voice belongs to Lee Vi Moses, Principal at Rogers High School in Rogers ISD, southeast of Temple. 

Moses:I don’t know about you guys, but I always feel a lot better when I’m paying about $2.40 at the pump because that means that I’ve got plenty of computers, plenty of teachers, and I’ve got plenty of materials that I need at my disposal.

Bloomer: It is football kickoff end August, beginning of September, across the great State of Texas. What’s that look like?

Huie: For many communities across the state, the fall semester in Texas wouldn’t be complete without Friday night lights. Recently the University Interscholastic League, or UIL, as it’s known here in Texas, announced that the football season will occur, but it will be delayed about a month. Before the announcement, armchair speculation around this important topic was commonplace across the state.

Johnston: I’m going to call mid-September district games.

Bloomer: Anybody else, input?

Groppel: I think we’re going to have limited capacity in the stands. I think you’re going to have some guidance that will come out and it’ll be 50% capacity or 25% capacity or something like that. So you’ll really have to limit who all’s allowed to come to the games, and how many tickets you can sell, and those kind of things. That’s what I think. I think Jason’s timeframe is middle of September, and you’re going pretty quick to playoffs. I think they’re going to try to shoot to be done by Thanksgiving.

Bloomer: Wow.

Martinez: Just like us, I mean, anytime we get together with teams, we always have more questions than answers.  The problem is we’re running out of time, and so now that each time we meet, you’ve got to really commit to, “okay, we’re going to leave this meeting with some answers.” Even if we just kind of create them and come up with them on our own, we’re just really going to have to go back to what our goals were for coming into it. And so, I’m having to do that quite a bit, just redirect people to “yeah, we all have questions, but now’s the time for solutions.  We’ve got to be planning something.”

Huie: There’s no longer time to discuss the many challenges that we may face in reopening schools in the fall.  Now is the time for solutions. And despite the uncertainties surrounding the fall, Texas school leaders are working to create them. In another call of Raise Your Hand alumni, Jenny Stumbaugh – the Director of Professional Learning for Los Fresnos ISD, a small district in the Rio Grande Valley – reached out  for support  from a group of her colleagues from across the state. Together they generated specific ideas to help ensure students are safe and receive quality instruction no matter where schooling takes place. This conversation also took place at the beginning of June. 

Jenny Stumbaugh: I really was just hoping maybe we could bounce around some ideas or things that your districts have talked about in terms of coming back in August.  So, I’ll just start by sharing what we would like to do, and to maybe hear what other people are doing, and we can try to help each other solve things that have come up.

Stumbaugh: What we’re really trying to do is find a way to have pre-K through second grade come every day, but essentially, one classroom in two separate rooms and what that would look like and how that would work.  The middle school and the high school, I feel like we kind of have that a little bit figured out, but the elementary just seems to be giving us a run for our money.

Dr. Keri Launius: So, I think it’s really, really smart. The research that I’ve been reading indicates that we need to make sure that we are educating our littles face-to-face as much as possible for several reasons. 

Huie: That voice belongs to Keri Launius, Executive Director of Learning and Staff-Development for Galveston ISD.

Launius: One, when they’re that young, the gaps are smaller. If we can control the gaps at an early age, it’s better for our student outcomes. The other one is, those kiddos can’t operate the online system like the bigger kids can. We’ve talked about here in Galveston, we have the luxury of having some buildings that we can repurpose, like our alternative school.  So what is the biggest issue, Jenny? Is it where to put the kids?

Stumbaugh: Right.  Well, it’s where to put the kids and then, who’s going to be with them.  Right? Because if these ratios stay the same, say I’ve got 21 first-graders and the teacher can only be with 10 or 11 kids at a time, am I putting a para (Note: ‘para’ refers to paraprofessional working within the school district) with the others?

Launius: That’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about paras. We have retired administrators and teachers that go to certain schools as tutors or coaches. 

Stumbaugh: Then just space is our other issue. We used one school as an example that we thought was going to be the hardest and tried to map that out and we were still like six spaces short. 

Launius: Is there anywhere in the community where you could reach out to them?

Stumbaugh: Yeah, that’s not a bad idea.

Launius: Yeah. Like a community center or city hall or– I mean, what a great opportunity for some partnerships.

Lynn Smith: Jenny, we had talked about using our high schools as places where our younger ones could come to if our high school kids stay home. That might be something y’all want to look at.

Huie: That new voice belongs to Lynn Smith, the Principal at CityLab High School in Dallas ISD.

Sandy Whitlow: You know, Jenny, you said that you’ve got your middle school and high school kind of figured out – it’s your littles that you’re worried about. What are you doing with your middle schools and high schools?

Huie: That’s Sandy Whitlow, Assistant Superintendent of Middle Schools for Amarillo ISD.

Stumbaugh: I shouldn’t say we have it figured out, but like, we feel better about it-


Launius: Yeah, wow, like, you’ve got it figured out!

Whitlow: I’m like, “Okay. That sounds good.”


Stumbaugh: We feel a little bit more confident that we can make the thought that we have work.  The thought right now, which I feel like it changes every day, is that they’ll come two days a week on a rotating basis.  You would either be on a Monday-Wednesday schedule or a Tuesday-Thursday schedule and then Friday would be reserved for some level of extracurricular in smaller groups. We just feel really strongly that we have to continue that at some level for that social-emotional piece.  So, that’s what we’re looking at for six through 12.

Huie: Paul Covey, the Principal at Valle Verde Early College High School in Ysleta ISD shares that his district has a similar plan for the upper-grade levels. 

Paul Covey: We basically have three options. Come back full time, just do all virtual, or do a hybrid where one group comes back on Monday-Wednesday and the other group comes back on Tuesday-Thursday. On Friday, nobody’s there, and that’s when all the teachers do their planning, especially if you do the two types of lessons and also do all our parent contacts and stuff like that.

Dr. Barry Lanford: One of the things that we’ve toyed with, when the kids get into their classrooms, they stay. Instead of rotating and the teachers are going to rotate. That way you’re going to minimize that hallway contact. 

Huie: That’s Barry Lanford, the Executive Director of Facility Maintenance and Operations for North East ISD in San Antonio.

In addition to challenges presented by in-person learning, educators are working to make improvements to remote learning, including expanding student access to WiFi, training teachers in best practices, and supporting students in developing greater agency over their learning.  

Covey: The hotspots is one issue where we didn’t have that for our district.  By the time we’d order it, it would be almost the end of April.  So for the fall, we are going to be getting hotspots for kids that need it.

Stumbaugh: If a family decides that they don’t want to come back at all, they can do everything through Google classroom with their specific teacher. We’re working on training all of our teachers now so that they have to use Google classroom as their platform.

Stumbaugh: One of the things we realized was we just had too many things floating around out there. That was really hard on our parents more than anything just to keep up with like, well, this kid’s doing this and this kid’s doing that. So we said, “No, everybody’s going to do the same thing.”

Launius:  I feel very strongly, we need to teach kids even more how to advocate for themselves and communicate with the teacher when they don’t understand. That’s something that we’re going to push right when we get back.

Covey: That’s the same at all grade levels. Even your supposedly advanced seniors they got there and like “well how is going to get fixed if you just sit there?” You’ve got to ask questions.

Launius: I had a kiddo that was all Pre-AP, had super high grades before COVID, and failed four classes for the semester, and had like a 30 and she goes, “Well, I didn’t know how to do it, so I just didn’t.” I’m like, “Well, yeah,” because we didn’t teach them how to advocate for themselves and communicate and what a great relevant learning opportunity for when they go on.

Smith: Has anyone talked about masks and face guards?

Huie: While the Texas Education Agency, or TEA, won’t require districts to make educators or students wear masks or do temperature checks, the agency is distributing Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, to all districts across the state as a resource. TEA plans to distribute more than 50 million disposable masks, 10 million gloves, 40,000 thermometers, 600,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to Texas school districts. Even so, districts anticipate incurring substantial costs for additional PPE.

Covey: We’re going to do masks and temperature taking every morning. Our kids that are coming going to colleges all the time. So, we’ll be doing check-in temperatures every hour on the hour. And now we’ve got to buy all these thermometers.

Smith: We’ve ordered three masks for every child with the school’s logo on it. Then, kids will wear their masks in, and they will go to their advisory or homerooms. They’ll have a face shield that they put on for the rest of the day while they’re at school. And they move to their four classes since we’re on blocks. And then the kids will eat lunch in their classroom as well. Move back to their advisory for dismissal, and put their masks back on.  It’s going to be interesting.

Lanford: We didn’t talk about face shields.

Launius: Yes, [crosstalk] the face shields?

Smith: I guess it’s those plastic ones, I guess because it would be more comfortable for the kids, and they can still talk through them and be understood.

Stumbaugh: They’re super hard to find, but I’m actually meeting with our CTE director – you can print your own with 3D printers. And so we’re going to start making our own.

Launius: Oh, wow!

Stumbaugh: You don’t realize how much people read your lips [crosstalk].

Smith: Read Lips, right.

Stumbaugh: Yes, and one of the trainers that I have said, “Look, I found this article about how you can make your own with 3D printers.”  So, we’re going to start doing that.

Huie: Even in the midst of a pandemic, our Texas public school educators continue to come up with innovative approaches and are solution-oriented in their mindsets. While there are many unknown and unresolved challenges ahead, our school leaders are working tirelessly to prepare for a range of difficult scenarios and are keeping all 5.4 million public school students at the forefront of their minds. 

Launius: I tell this every time I do a training: we’ve got to remember that, you know, teaching face to face and teaching online we still have to teach.  You know, that our Google classroom or our Canvas is not a repository for PDFs, that we have to be on our educational game because I’ve already seen people come out in the community saying, “Why do we need teachers if they’re just dumping a bunch of stuff online?” We have to be careful about keeping the rigor up.  We’ve got to remember how important it is that we are equitable in what we’re doing to serve our kids.

Huie: These internal conversations demonstrate that district and campus leaders are hard at work to create consistent, quality, and equitable instructional opportunities for all students.

Huie: And they are not planning in isolation. School leaders across Texas are working together to tease out ideas and strategies for safely reopening schools in the fall. This is at the heart of the intent of the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation alumni network, to strengthen connections and encourage collaboration between educators around the state.

Huie: Those closest to the challenge at hand – our teachers, principals, and district staff – should be trusted to lead our schools and communities in the recovery. And we should give them the resources needed to ensure our schools can meet the needs of all students. 

Huie: In the first episodes of Intersect Ed, we brought you the stories of Texas public school teachers rising to the challenge of COVID-19 – how it has affected them mentally, in their daily work, and in their relationships with each other and their students. This fall, we will continue to cover the impacts of COVID-19 on education, take a look at ongoing systemic issues facing Texas public schools, showcase high-quality teaching practices during a turbulent time, and share stories of a strong Texas recovery. 

Huie: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Cody Huie, and this is IntersectEd.  

Huie: If you want to learn more about how to support Texas public education or how to get involved, head over to RaiseYourHandTexas.org. Thank you for listening.


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