LISD trustees discuss school-closure scenarios, other issues related to coronavirus concerns

The March 12 Leander ISD board of trustees meeting drew a large crowd that spoke about a variety of subjects. (Brian Perdue/Community Impact Newspaper)
The March 12 Leander ISD board of trustees meeting drew a large crowd that spoke about a variety of subjects. (Brian Perdue/Community Impact Newspaper)

The March 12 Leander ISD board of trustees meeting drew a large crowd that spoke about a variety of subjects. (Brian Perdue/Community Impact Newspaper)

Leander ISD is creating short- and long-term plans for educating children at home if warranted, LISD officials said at a board of trustees meeting March 12.

Amid concerns about the potential spread of coronavirus, trustees also addressed employee pay, special education and meal programs for qualifying students.

Although the gathering was a regularly scheduled meeting, the district made coronavirus a late addition to the meeting agenda.

While Superintendent Bruce Gearing said he preferred to keeps students coming to school as long as it was safe, he stressed that “the safety of our staff and our students is the No. 1 priority.”

Chief Academic Officer Matt Bentz said the district was creating a “remote learning contingency plan.”

“The learning needs of students vary, and we have planned accordingly,” Bentz said.

Bentz said that should LISD close one, several or all schools due to coronavirus, there are “a variety of digital platforms” that can allow teachers and students to communicate. For instance, all LISD secondary teachers use Google Classroom, a free online platform, for notes and homework assignments, according to Bentz.

The challenge, he said, would be at the elementary levels, where online communication between teachers and students is not as prevalent, and with special education, where students have individualized learning needs.

There are also a minority of students who do not have internet access at home, Bentz said.

“We are working with IT to prepare devices for kids who do not have [internet access at home],” he said.

Gearing suggested that all LISD teachers should take their devices home March 13 for the weeklong spring break.

“There is no plan at this time to close school and cancel classes,” he said. “But students and teachers should take devices home in case we don’t come back after the break.”

Some students also rely on LISD for nutrition, receiving two meals a day on school days, district officials said. LISD is looking into a variation of its summer feeding program, or new programs, such as a Meals on Wheels-type service where meals would be driven to students' homes.

As for student attendance, Gearing said the district was “not going to overreact.” Students who miss class due to coronavirus-related concerns will receive an excused absence, Gearing said.

Gearing said that should schools close, LISD is working to make sure all employees still get paid, even though they may not be working due to potential closures.

“We are working on a resolution to continue pay,” Gearing said.

District officials have said for weeks that measures to address coronavirus concerns—as well as decisions to shut down one, several or all schools in LISD—would be made by local, state or federal officials or by LISD.

At 5 p.m. March 11, LISD took action when it sent out an email to district parents informing them that all large gatherings would be canceled, causing the postponement of a March 19-21 FIRST robotics competition at Vandegrift High School and the cancellation of a March 14 Texas Color Guard competition.

The email also announced the cancellation of all LISD-sanctioned out-of-state travel. Approximately 70 Vista Ridge High School students, who were scheduled to fly out at 7 a.m. March 12 for a spring break trip to Disneyworld, had to cancel their trip.

According to parents and students who spoke at the March 12 meeting, the trip cost $1,500 per person, yet the travel agency was refusing to provide refunds because the students did not provide 48 hours’ notice, according to parents and students who spoke at the March 12 meeting. Trustees said they would see what they could do to help get refunds.

On March 12, Disneyworld announced that it would close indefinitely starting March 16.

Trustee Aaron Johnson said he wondered what would happen if LISD faced a long-term school shutdown and its effect on STAAR testing, graduations and summer school, to name a few.

“What are the potential consequences if we felt compelled to keep students out of classrooms for three or four or five weeks?” he asked. “What does the rest of the school year look like?”

LISD officials said an extended school year is one possibility; however, trustee Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia said the Texas Education Agency is deferring to the district with regards to what constitutes a school day.

“If there is some instruction, it counts as a school day,” she said.

Trustee Pam Waggoner suggested a 5 p.m. March 19 deadline to decide whether students would return to school March 24 after spring break. Teachers are scheduled to return March 23.

Board president Trish Bode advised against setting a hard deadline, due to the rapidly changing events surrounding coronavirus.

Trustee Jim Mackay suggested that a districtwide school closure before coronavirus potentially reaches LISD might help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“The more of the communities that practice social distancing, the less the spread,” he said. “If we make that decision [to close] earlier, we would be less likely to shut down for a long time.”

LISD officials said they would remain in frequent contact with LISD families and staff through email and other channels.

“This is so new, it’s hard to know what the right step is,” Waggoner said.