Education

School districts in Bell County have announced their plans for the upcoming 2020-21 school year. The Belton Independent School District is a notable exception — for good reason, according to administrators.

“I think the complexity of this situation is important to point out to our public, our board members and our teachers, too,” Superintendent Matt Smith said Wednesday, describing planning for the start of school in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as a complex puzzle with many pieces.

During a workshop meeting Wednesday afternoon, Belton ISD administrators briefed the school board on their proposed plan to tackle learning for the new academic school year.

The proposal — which administrators said is a draft and nothing is concrete yet — is based on guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency last week.

The district expects to finalize and release the plan on July 24. A survey will be sent to the Belton ISD community Thursday and the district will hold community feedback events Tuesday and Wednesday.

The state agency is requiring schools to open their buildings for in-person instruction five days a week while offering a remote learning option, The Texas Tribune reported. It also allows districts to have a three-week transition at the start of the year to have virtual classes to nail their plans before allowing students to come back to school.

Smith criticized TEA’s plan. He said it does not consider the health and safety of students, teachers, other staff and the greater community.

“I don’t think it addresses the concerns I have heard from our community and staff,” the Belton schools superintendent said.

Smith pointed out it is vague and is already outdated after being published more than a week ago. It also does not allow schools to have a phased-in approach or hybrid plan to address face-to-face instruction, he said.

Despite that, Belton ISD is planning for multiple scenarios because the coronavirus crisis rapidly changes day to day, Smith said.

Five scenarios

Deputy Superintendent Malinda Golden presented a plan with five scenarios that could be in place when class starts on Aug. 19. She emphasized the plan is not linear, and many of the scenarios could occur at the same time.

The first scenario would be traditional face-to-face instruction.

“That’s where … the COVID situation has improved,” Golden said, adding it might be a scenario implemented when a vaccine is released and the virus is in the past.

Schools are far from that point. Scenarios two and three would be face-to-face instruction, but with increased safety precautions in each phase. Those precautions would include just encouraging masks and simply sanitizing common areas in scenario two to requiring masks, no gatherings in common areas and limiting cafeteria capacity in scenario three.

“Then we move into (a) hybrid (approach),” Golden said of scenario four.

The hybrid model, the deputy superintendent explained, might have elementary students attending in-person classes that are spread throughout campuses in Belton ISD. Secondary students, she added, would have most of their instruction online, with face-to-face instruction two times a week.

Scenario five is at-home learning. The district is considering having some teachers be only for remote learning, said Deanna Lovesmith, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.

“We are not allowed to ask someone to commit to that option until two weeks to school,” Golden said.

‘Find that excitement’

Under the proposal, students and their families would most likely be required to commit to either in-person or remote learning for a nine-week grading period, Lovesmith said. Families are expected to register for the new school year starting July 27 and ending Aug. 4.

“I think what I’m hearing is that if we end up in this model, we would design the education experience for the remote model. If you know you’re going to teach remotely, you design the course work differently,” Trustee Chris Flor said.

Students are Belton ISD’s top priority, Lovesmith said.

“We’ve got to find that excitement and that joy of learning and not let anything else around us overshadow because that is our priority,” she said.