School year begins with virtual learning in Leander ISD as campuses prepare for in-person classes

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For all the unknowns in the 2020-21 school year, Leander ISD officials have said at least one thing is certain: The district’s virtual learning model for the fall will be much more effective than the model that was rushed out in the spring.

All of LISD’s approximately 42,000 students were scheduled to begin 100% virtual learning Aug. 13—after this edition went to press. On Sept. 8, based on a decision made by their families, students will start either 100% virtual or 100% in-person instruction. Elementary school families have a third option, hybrid learning, which incorporates in-person and virtual instruction on different days.

However, if the Austin-Travis County health office—the local health entity that LISD has been using since March to inform its coronavirus decisions—states that conducting in-person instruction is not safe, LISD has the authority to continue 100% virtual instruction for all students for up to four weeks, which could delay in-person and hybrid instruction to Oct. 5, according to district officials.

Further spikes in the pandemic could cause schools to remain closed even longer, officials said.

Superintendent Bruce Gearing said a coronavirus outbreak could return some or all students and staff to 100% virtual instruction.

Whatever the fall semester holds, LISD Chief Academic Officer Matt Bentz said, LISD’s virtual instruction will be much stronger and easier for teachers, students and families than it was in the spring.

“It’s a completely new virtual learning program,” Bentz said at a July 16 trustee meeting.

When LISD schools closed after spring break because of the virus, district officials rushed to create a virtual learning model. Since that time, district officials said, teachers and staff have been working to improve upon that hastily created program.

Bentz credited summer school teachers with “[blazing] the trail” and using trial and error to help determine what types of virtual instruction works best for LISD students.

Officials said virtual learners in the fall will have a much easier time logging in and submitting assignments. Teacher training and communication with parents will also be better, Bentz said.

Furthermore, LISD will return in the fall to its traditional grading system after having switched to a pass-fail system in the spring, and GPAs and class rankings are returning for high school students. Attendance will once more be catalogued by teachers, Bentz said.

Students in a virtual setting will be held to the same academic standards and schedules as those learning in-person, according to Devin Padavil, one of LISD’s three area superintendents. All three learning methods offered will share characteristics so that students can more easily transition from virtual to in-person and, if needed, back again.

A virtual school day will contain the same instruction times, lunches and bell schedules as an in-person school day. All three learning models will incorporate synchronous, live learning and asynchronous, independent learning. Virtual and hybrid learning students will be held to the same academic standards as in-person students, district officials said.

Virtual and in-person class sizes will be roughly the same, Bentz said, with 22-25 students in each class.

Advanced Placement and dual-language instruction will be offered in virtual and in-person formats, with a few exceptions. Dual-credit courses, which count for high school and college credit, will be virtual-only, according to Chrysta Carlin, LISD executive director of secondary curriculum.

Select career technical education classes will be 100% virtual during the fall semester, but the majority of CTE courses will also require in-person instruction, according to district officials.

Kimberly Waltmon, the district’s executive director of special programs, told trustees July 16 that special-needs students will have more live learning in the fall. When in-person instruction begins, new safety protocols will be in place for special education staff and students during in-person instruction. Special equipment to aid with instruction, such as see-through masks for speech pathologists, will be implemented as well.

“We want this to be very different from the spring and very meaningful for our students,” she said.

For in-person learning, health and hygiene will become a top priority, Padavil said.

Staff and students in grades 3-12 will be required to wear masks at all times, except when eating or drinking. All students, including children in pre-K through second grade, will be required to wear masks during transitions, including entering and leaving school.

“We know that the act of wearing a mask is one of the best preventive measures,” Padavil told trustees July 23.

LISD officials have also said they are working to close the digital divide with some families. LISD Chief Technical Officer Jason Miller said 315 district families lacked internet connectivity during the spring semester.

As such, Miller said, the district has purchased hot spots, which are devices that allow computer users to access the internet via Wi-Fi through cell phone companies. There are still 60-70 families who live in areas with weak cell reception, and those families are being addressed on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Although the deadline to choose an instruction type was Aug. 7, as of press time Aug. 10, Leander ISD spokesperson Matt Mitchell said the district was still finalizing how teachers will be distributed across in-person, virtual and hybrid learning.

The decisions surrounding when school should reopen have resulted in spirited conversations with those who want schools to reopen sooner and those who want a more gradual reopening, trustees and officials said.

LISD officials’ consensus is that starting the school year with virtual learning is the safest approach.

“I get that we have parents that absolutely have to work,” trustee Jim MacKay said. “As a board, we have the obligation to do what is right for the greatest number of people in our district.”