Plano ISD students, staff work through kinks of in-person, remote learning

Students are dropped off at Weatherford Elementary School on Sept. 9, the first day of in-person learning. (Liesbeth Powers/Community Impact Newspaper)
Students are dropped off at Weatherford Elementary School on Sept. 9, the first day of in-person learning. (Liesbeth Powers/Community Impact Newspaper)

Students are dropped off at Weatherford Elementary School on Sept. 9, the first day of in-person learning. (Liesbeth Powers/Community Impact Newspaper)

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After months of learning from home, more than half of Plano ISD students returned to campuses Sept. 9. That morning, as Superintendent Sara Bonser watched parents drop off their children at Weatherford Elementary School, she said she felt confident that the district has done all it can to ensure students are educated safely.

“We have thought through to the greatest detail [ways] that we can to keep everyone who chooses to come back to school safe,” Bonser said.

One of the major changes to this school year is the format in which different grade levels will learn. Elementary and middle school students who have opted for face-to-face instruction will be on campus five days a week. High school and senior high students will return via a hybrid model that includes in-person and virtual learning.

This is just one of the adjustments the district has made in planning for the new school year. Sanitation procedures, social distancing guidelines and protocols for dealing with a potential outbreak have also been put into place, resulting in a school year that looks very different from years past. For more info on PISD’s plan for face-to-face and at home learning, visit www.pisd.edu/returnplan.

Fewer in need of bus transportation


Despite new spacing requirements, Plano ISD buses will operate at fairly normal capacity due to nearly half of students opting to learn from home, Kary Cooper, assistant superintendent for student engagement and district services, said at an August board meeting.

Students will be assigned seats and will be required to wear masks while on the bus. The district has also asked parents to talk to their students about safety measures while riding the bus, Cooper said.


“We have sent out and provided information we would like our parents to communicate with their children about how to socially distance at the bus stop ... all the way [to using] hand sanitizers when they get on the bus,” Cooper said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines for school districts and bus operators to follow; however, most decisions lie with individual districts, the Texas Department of Public Safety told Community Impact Newspaper. Those guidelines include frequent cleaning of high-touch areas, limiting the number of people on each bus and posting signs to encourage social distancing.

Meals for all students


The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in September that it would continue to pay for meals throughout the fall semester. Plano ISD, which served 463,824 free meals to students in the spring and summer, will extend its complimentary breakfast and lunch service for all students through Dec. 31 or until USDA funds run out, according to the district.

“We feel like that it’s part of our responsibility to make sure that our students, whether they’re learning at home or at school, are fed every day,” Superintendent Sara Bonser said.

Students in virtual learning can pick up weekly curbside meal bundles at select campuses Tuesdays from 9:30-10:30 a.m. and 4:45-6 p.m. For a list of locations, visit www.pisd.edu/grandandgo.

Students in face-to-face instruction might eat lunch in areas other than the cafeteria, Kary Cooper, assistant superintendent for student engagement and district services, said at an August board meeting. Locations will vary by campus but may include classrooms and libraries, according to plans. The content of meals will remain the same but will be served differently, he said.

“The food will be ... prepared fresh,” Cooper said. “However, it will be placed into more of an individual container.”

District prioritizes social-emotional well-being

Plano ISD officials have responded to concerns from parents by implementing additional mental health safeguards for students enrolled in virtual learning.

Lessons on social and emotional well-being have been integrated into curriculum, Superintendent Sara Bonser said. The district has also provided students access to online calming rooms, which vary based on grade level. These spaces are intended to help students manage their emotions during this unprecedented time, Family Services employee Clair Song said at a Sept. 1 board meeting.

The elementary room offers different options for students to choose from, such as live animal video streams, calming activities and relaxing videos. Secondary students can choose from six different calming activities and virtual tours of places, such as Buckingham Palace.

The tools have been successful thus far, Song said.

“It’s been very helpful, especially since our students are so used to using that calm-down area in classrooms,” she said.

Adjustments made to extracurriculars


Even though social activities will look different this year, PISD is dedicated to offering as many as of these opportunities as possible to keep student morale high, Superintendent Sara Bonser said.

“That’s where [students] find their joy and their inspiration, and that keeps them more socially and emotionally healthy,” Bonser said. “So we want to try to provide as much of that safely as we can.”

After months of analysis, the University Interscholastic League, which governs athletics, academics and music competitions for Texas schools, landed on Sept. 7 as the first date for practices for 5A and 6A schools, the largest in the state, league Department Director Jamey Harrison said. PISD is in that group.

Students in virtual instruction are able to join in-person sports practices, Kary Cooper, assistant superintendent for student engagement and district services, said at an August board meeting.

“I’m sure there are going to be a few bumps in the road, but we are optimistic that is going to work well for everybody,” Cooper said.

Games will be livestreamed through a subscription streaming service, according to the district. Those who attend games in person will be required to wear masks, and stadium capacity will be limited. More information on capacity limitations for each PISD gym and stadium can be found at www.pisd.edu.

Additional resources needed for virtual instruction


About 5.6% of students in PISD were unable to participate in virtual learning this spring due in part to lack of access to technology. As a result, the district joined Operation Connectivity to ensure those gaps were closed in the new school year. The effort, which began in Dallas ISD, aims to connect all of the state’s 5.5 million public school students with a device and a reliable internet connection.

The district has provided roughly 1,900 Wi-Fi hot spots and 40,000 Google Chromebook laptops to students, Superintendent Sara Bonser said. Virtual learning this fall has been vastly improved over what was offered in the spring; however, ironing out the kinks is a work in progress, she said.

“I think we will continue to refine and adjust as we go,” she said. “Just like you would in a regular classroom, you adapt to the needs of your kids.”

Plan for positive cases


If a student or faculty member tests positive for the virus, the district will inform staff as well as families whose children may have been in contact with the infected person. Information about test-confirmed cases will also be shared daily via www.pisd.edu/coviddashboard.

In order to return to school after showing symptoms or testing positive, students and staff must isolate until they are fever-free for 24 hours without medication, and they may not return to campus until 10 days after symptoms began. Students who show symptoms are expected to be picked up by a parent or guardian. Contaminated areas will be cleared and sanitized before others can return, according to the plan.

Plano ISD does not anticipate closing the entire district again unless ordered to do so by the governor, Superintendent Sara Bonser said.
By Makenzie Plusnick
Makenzie graduated from Tarleton State University in 2019 with a degree in communications. While in school, she interned at the Weatherford Democrat and was editor of Texan News Service, a news outlet at Tarleton. She enjoys true crime podcasts, riding horses, and spending time with her dog.


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