Modified Texas School District Calendars Necessitate New Communication Practices
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent school closures have made it necessary for Texas K-12 public districts to reevaluate their 2020-2021 academic calendar. Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath noted that "It will be safe for Texas public school students, teachers, and staff to return to school campuses for in-person instruction this fall. But there will also be flexibility for families with health concerns so that their children can be educated remotely, if the parent so chooses."
When considering modifying the upcoming calendar, many districts in Texas surveyed their community including teachers, parents and students for their feedback. The debate remains complicated as surveys have shown that as many as ⅔ of parents feel schools should remain closed until the pandemic has passed. Many families shared that they will consider keeping their children home from in-person classes until they feel the risk has subsided, which could be a large portion of the school year. Surveys also noted that families are requesting more contact with teachers should remote learning continue into the fall.
The majority of Texas districts who have released their instructional calendars for the new year fall into one of three categories as listed below. Each has their own challenges that will be discussed.
1- Intersessional School Calendar- School would begin earlier than normal in August, end later than normal in June and feature several intersessional breaks throughout the year to allow for short-term disruptions. The TEA first proposed the use of intersessional and non-traditional calendars early in the move to distance learning in order to safeguard against potential COVID-19 resurgences in the new school year. This flexible type of scheduling also addresses learning loss by building in time for school closures which the TEA suggests is one way to combat the loss that can occur when students are away from school for extended periods of time.
Districts also have the option of continuing with lessons during intersessional breaks by identifying students who are below the current grade level requirements, which is the plan at Spring Independent School District. According to Spring ISD Chief of School Leadership, Lupita Hinojosa, these students “may receive targeted instruction so they can stay on track with grade level requirements or take part in enrichment activities.''
Spring ISD also plans to have their Senior students continue with lessons during the intersessional breaks via distance learning. This will allow Seniors to graduate as usual in May (as opposed to continuing until the end of June with the grades that did not continue during the breaks).
Challenges with the Intersessional School Calendar- Because the intersessional calendar approach is new for many districts and families, it is of utmost importance that EVERY parent is aware of the calendar and short-term disruption weeks. There is no room for error as the intersessional weeks are additional to regular holiday weeks and Seniors will depend on continued learning during these breaks to graduate on time. Parents of Seniors need to be aware of the materials and deadlines their students are expected to cover during these weeks. Parents with younger children who cannot stay home by themselves will need to be especially aware of the intersessional weeks so that they may arrange child care. Districts should consider a platform that makes communication quick and easy for all families- a system that doesn’t require parents to download an app or log into a portal before they can start communicating.
As communication will be even more essential moving towards the new school year- districts will need a way to confirm they have spoken to parents both about school closures for intersessional breaks and continued learning opportunities for specific students and high school seniors. Districts will need to ensure 100% student contact-ability or graduation rates and academic achievement could be at risk.
2- Hybrid/Blended Learning School Calendar- This schedule has some students attending traditional in-class instruction and others working remotely. Fort Bend Independent School District is taking this approach according to Superintendent Dr. Charles Dupre. “Pre-K through 6th grade students in the classroom for five days a week, while students in 7th through 12th grades split time learning in the classroom and at home.” The district will also allow any student who feels uncomfortable returning to the physical classroom the ability to learn at home.
Challenges with the Hybrid/Blended School Calendar- Similar to the Intersessional calendar, the Hybrid/Blended model requires that districts be in lock-step with parents. For the students in 7th-12th grade it is essential that parents not only understand the materials they need to be covering while learning remotely but also know when their children are to attend in-person lessons at their campuses. Districts will need a communication platform that can reach families through group messaging (for example a message sent to all 7th grade families indicating their students are required in-person for the week of November 9th) and also 1:1. Districts should employ a system that uses automatic logging of communication. This will ensure that the district has a record of when the call was made and any conversations that occurred to cover any situations that may occur.
For families that choose to keep their students home completely throughout the school year, districts will need to make sure that these students are receiving the same information and materials as students who attend in-person. Parent’s high frequency communication with teachers will be key to understanding assignments and testing periods.
3- Traditional pre-COVID19 Calendars with Extended School Days- Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District has elected to maintain their regular calendar but extend each school day by 10-15 minutes. Over the course of the school year this additional daily time equates to 8 school days which would not have to be made up in the event of a closure. For closures greater than 8 days the district would have instruction in June. District Superintendent Dr. Mark Henry commented “we opted to keep our calendar the same, and yes, we did add some time to the school day to build us up a little cushion of eight days in case we have to let school out. I know it’s not ideal for everyone, but we thought that was a good way to approach this situation.” The traditional calendar option is the easiest to understand for families as there are no major changes from the previous year.
Challenges with the Traditional pre-COVID19 Calendar with Extended School Days- The main challenge is communicating what happens in the event of an outbreak of illness whether contained to an individual campus or district-wide. Parents will need to be informed immediately of closure plans and then of the distance-learning materials and expectations that follow. Districts using the traditional calendar require mass-communication platforms to notify parents of the closure, group messaging communication to notify grade-levels of curriculum and deadlines, and 1:1 communication to support individual families. Districts should use a system that allows for a families preferred language to be saved to the platform and any messages (mass, group or 1:1) be automatically translated into this language. This will save the district time, especially during emergencies, to not have to create multiple variations of the message into each language spoken in the district.
At this stage, with still so much uncertainty, there is no “right” way to head into the 2020-2021 school year. Different approaches to the school year calendar are necessary to meet the individual needs of the district and community; each calendar has their own upsides and challenges. What is certain is that districts need to be fully engaged and in communication with families to ensure continuity of learning for their students.
SchoolStatus gives educators a real-time picture of all data associated with their students including benchmarks, state assessments, grades, discipline, attendance, etc. From the same view, educators have tools to contact parents via text, email, or call while documenting the communication on the student record. No other parent communication technology provides tools for data analytics and parent communication from within a single system.
Erin Winnicki is an ed-tech professional from Houston with a passion for the K-12 public education space. Connect with her to discuss your district communication needs or the Houston Astros—she's got a lot to say about both.