Georgetown ISD will start the 2020-21 school year virtually for the first three weeks, district officials announced July 20.

The first day of school will still be Aug. 20 with the first day of in-person classes targeted for Sept. 10, GISD Superintendent Fred Brent said.

GISD held back on making a decision on the start of the school year as other neighboring districts such as Round Rock ISD, Leander ISD and Pflugerville ISD did a week prior, opting instead to send a second survey to families and staff on their preference.

“We felt like we need to take a week to get the pulse of our community, our staff to see how we were doing and see what some of the questions were,” Brent said.

Of the 11,632 family responses to the second survey, 54% said they preferred the school year to start with remote learning as a requirement for all students. Of the 1,943 staff responses, 68% agreed the same.

“There was a reason we wanted to go out to our community and our staff and ask just this question,” said Wes Venicek, the GISD chief strategist for feedback and assessment. “We wanted to give people the opportunity to put their voice into the survey and honestly speak for themselves and their family.”

The Texas Education Agency announced the three-week option July 15, which has now been extended to four, should districts choose to do so, Brent said. Brent added GISD will stick with three weeks of virtual learning for now but will continue to watch as the pandemic evolves, which could result in a school board resolution allowing for an additional four weeks of virtual learning.

Brent added he believed the three weeks of virtual learning will allow teachers to prepare for what in-person learning could look like and get further training if needed. It will also give parents time to see what it would look like for their child to attend school with new safety protocols in place, he said.

“This allows us time to transition and for staff to prepare with new procedures and protocols while implementing high-quality remote learning models,” Brent said. “We think is in the best interest of the community as a whole [and] allow us to continue to navigate the changing dynamics around COVID-19 and how we prepare for an upcoming school year.”

What virtual learning will look like

District officials said school learning will be different in the fall as it was in the spring because “it has to be.”

Terri Conrad, the GISD chief strategist for learning and design, said a couple of the differences include that all students in all grade levels will have full-day academic content five days a week. Daily engagements will be necessary and required, and the district will put in place specific supports for teachers and families to implement effective remote instruction.

“It has to be good; it has to be a viable option,” Conrad said of distance learning. “The fact of the matter is we are going to have students [where] this is their best option all year, so it cannot be a lesser-than experience than what they are getting in face to face experience.”

Attendance will be factored in to daily engagement, and learning will be designed so that it will have student-teacher interaction with work that is turned in and shows progress. These interactions will take place at preplanned times and will be differentiated for students with additional learning needs, Conrad said.

In addition, students will receive at least weekly feedback on their learning progress, and grading will be the same as on-campus learning and as before the pandemic, she said.

“We will be providing the content and the relevance and the rigor we need to for our students,” Conrad said.

Brent added the district is determined to afford each student the same opportunity while learning from a distance and prepare staff for the day they can welcome kids back into their classrooms.

“Remote learning will be of the quality it needs to be so we can help students make academic advancement,” Brent said. “Remote learning must be robust for that to happen, and we believe we are in the right position to make that happen.”

Masks will also be required of all students and staff as long as developmentally appropriate, Brent said.

"We want to be in school, and we want to stay in school and the only way we are going to be able to stay in school—the way TEA has allowed us to come to school—is we will be wearing face masks," Brent said.

Student summer camps

GISD will continue student summer camps as scheduled until further guidelines are provided by the University Interscholastic League, Brent said.

“As of right now, we feel we should allow the campuses to continue with the regular schedule, and as the UIL guidelines are revealed to us ... we will navigate how to move forward,” Brent said. “We do feel like this is the most appropriate measure."

These camps include cheer, marching band and orchestra, which have prepared options for virtual camps, should UIL make that decision, GISD Director of Fine Arts Carol Watson said.

Similarly, GISD Athletics Director Jason Dean said student athletes will continue to train until otherwise notified by UIL.

UIL gave the OK to start strength and conditioning June 8. As of July 13, contact was allowed again, Dean said.

Dean added the athletics department has kept track of COVID-19 cases while students were in summer camps, to which the district reported eight confirmed cases, a positive rate of about 11% of the total 72 students and staff required to test for the virus after being in contact with a confirmed case.

The distract traced those infections to family members or city sport leagues, Dean said.

Next steps and important dates

District officials said they plan to release details on the district’s opening plan July 21 during its weekly communications with families. The district will continue to provide information to families on Tuesdays, it said.

The plan will include instructional information and GISD remote learning, and health and safety protocols, officials said.

Officials also said the district has ordered the technology necessary so each child who needs a computer or a hot spot for internet access will have possession of the devices prior to Aug. 20.

The district will hold parent information sessions July 23 and 27, as well as July 28 in Spanish. The sessions will be held virtual and links to the event will be provided at a later date, officials said.

Parents will have until Aug. 6 to determine if they will choose to send their child to school following the three-week virtual period. GISD officials had not yet laid out a plan for if parents change their minds prior to end of the first nine weeks.

Campus level plans will be posted Aug. 3, for which campuses will also hold information sessions before Aug. 6.

“The main thing is we want to staff safe and want to help them transition into how we welcome students when we do start with in-person classes and how to keep them safe in the process,” Brent said.