Plano ISD Navigates Uncharted Waters of Remote Learning

PISD remote learning // photo Jennifer Shertzer
PISD remote learning // photo Jennifer Shertzer

Plano ISD leaders say they are pleased with the overall results of remote learning so far. While the current situation is new territory, schooling has continued through the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to the collaborative efforts of teachers, students and parents.

Plano West Senior High teacher Daniel Cox says he tries to run his lessons as if he were in the classroom and make things as close to normal as possible. As he gets feedback from students and parents, he makes adjustments as needed. Keeping kids on task with their work is obviously his primary job. However, he also makes sure they have a chance to interact with him and each other when they meet online. Before discussing curriculum, Cox likes to simply talk so that everyone has the chance to share what’s going on in their lives. Under normal circumstances, one particular student never leaves class without giving him a high five. It’s a tradition they’ve managed to continue in a virtual setting.

“Seeing him smile every time we do it makes my day, just knowing there’s still pure joy with my students every day,” Cox said. “That’s probably the biggest positive for me.”

A Plano ISD elementary teacher leads an online class // courtesy Plano ISD
A Plano ISD elementary teacher leads an online class // courtesy Plano ISD

According to Superintendent Sara Bonser, Governor Greg Abbott’s April 17 decision to close classrooms for the remainder of the semester gave the district clarity on how to proceed. Before then, district officials faced a challenge of meeting constantly changing state and local mandates, while still providing for the education and safety of students. That challenge was made even more difficult by the fact that two counties and six cities fall at least partially within PISD’s boundaries. Whenever one of them enacted a new restriction, the district was obligated to adhere to it. Now that the state has stepped in with uniform guidelines, all efforts are focused on the rest of this school year and preparing for whatever comes next.

“We’re up and running now with remote learning,” Bonser said. “Our grading procedures and our remote learning plans are all in place. They will take us through to the end of the year, and we feel pretty good about that.”

Plano ISD’s Initial Response to COVID-19

Concern over COVID-19 began to grow during Plano ISD’s spring break week. Before students and teachers left for vacation, PISD conducted a staff survey and a voluntary parent survey to learn where people were traveling. This provided valuable information to aid in the decision-making process.

The district’s initial response was to extend spring break an additional week while it assessed options. That announcement was made March 12. By the following Monday, plans were being made to implement remote learning for an extended time. According to Chief Operating Officer Dr. Theresa Williams, one of the advantages Plano teachers have is the fact that the district writes and develops its own curriculum.

“We knew we had a strong core foundation to build off of, and we’ve also had some professional learning with lots of our technology tools,” she said.

The Phases of Remote Learning

The transition to at-home learning was actually a three-phase process. Phase 1 took place during the week of March 16, while students were on the extended spring break. Teachers were given additional training while parents were given resources to prepare.

Phase 2 began the following Monday, March 23. Teachers connected with students through Google Classroom, Zoom, email and other tools, and began teaching their lessons across all content areas. During this two-week phase the district also began deploying laptops to those who needed them. This was a massive undertaking as more than 30,000 laptops were taken apart and reprogrammed for at-home use. It was completed in less than a week.

Laptops sit ready to be distributed to students at Guinn Special Programs Center // courtesy Plano ISD
Laptops sit ready to be distributed to students at Guinn Special Programs Center // courtesy Plano ISD
Plano ISD staff and volunteers assembled boxes of school supplies for contactless delivery to more than 600 families // Jonathan Miller, Plano ISD Communications
Plano ISD staff and volunteers assembled boxes of school supplies for contactless delivery to more than 600 families // Jonathan Miller, Plano ISD Communications

Phase 3 kicked off April 6 with teacher-created lessons now supplemented with additional online resources to ensure consistency across the district. PISD also rolled out new grading guidelines. The district’s unofficial motto became “grace over grades” as PISD emphasized student social and emotional well-being. Administrators wanted to ensure continuous academic learning but also understood that everyone’s home situation is different, and there were many factors beyond their control.

“We didn’t want any student penalized because of this health crisis,” Bonser said. “Fairness in grading really matters. Trying to find a way to be fair to every single student regardless of their circumstances was really a huge priority. There’s not a perfect system but we feel like did a lot of work to get where we are.”

Food and Nutritional Services employees at Meadows Elementary package grab-and-go meals for students // courtesy Plano ISD
Food and Nutritional Services employees at Meadows Elementary package grab-and-go meals for students // courtesy Plano ISD

According to Shepard Elementary teacher Kulsum Mzee, at-home learning has actually gone better than expected. She credits tools that were put in place before the novel coronavirus hit. As parents and students provide feedback on the challenges, she finds way to better tailor her lessons to them.

“It wasn’t like we were reinventing the wheel all over again,” she said. “We started with what we had and moved forward with that.”

Sometimes the simplest things prove to be biggest challenges. For example, maybe Mzee wanted to do a lesson involving colored pencils. Now she must consider how can she accomplish the lesson for students who might not have those at home. She doesn’t want finding a colored pencil to make the lesson a burden, so she adjusts as needed.

“It’s not easy. We’re still learning and trying new things,” she said. “It just a learning process.”

Head Start Director Dr. Denise Lohmiller leads the Pledge of Allegiance in an online class // courtesy Plano ISD
Head Start Director Dr. Denise Lohmiller leads the Pledge of Allegiance in an online class // courtesy Plano ISD

Challenges and Disappointments

While overall at-home learning participation has been high, there are still students that the district has been unable to reach. Teachers, principals and counselors are now calling them to see if they can help. Home internet access is a challenge for many families. While some companies have offered to provide free service during the pandemic, making that a reality has not been easy. The district has also set up WiFi in many of its campus parking lots so students can access materials from their cars. It’s not an ideal setup, but then again, nothing is ideal right now.

The closure of schools has forced the cancellation or postponement of many cherished events. Chief among them is graduation, an event Bonser says she holds almost sacred.

“It’s the culmination and most formal acknowledgment in a student’s life through public education,” she said. “We’ve held out hope that there’s going to be some way to honor our students for all the hard work over the years that they’ve been with us.”

Plano Senior High School baseball team held a car parade honoring its senior players // courtesy Jennifer Tatum
Plano Senior High School baseball team held a car parade honoring its senior players // courtesy Jennifer Tatum

Holding graduation on its originally scheduled date is no longer an option. The back-up plan is to hold a mid-summer graduation if the health situation allows it. The district has reserved some venue dates in hopes that will happen. If not, PISD seniors may have to settle for a virtual graduation. The district has already been in touch with companies who can facilitate that.

As for other celebrations, prom may be held in the summer. There’s also been talk of having an extra-large homecoming to welcome back graduation seniors in the fall. For other events, the district is working to create videos and virtual options in lieu of traditional end-of-year celebrations.

Going forward, the district will be implementing a fourth phase of at-home learning for students who need to make up credits as well as for SAT and ACT test prep. The hope is that classes will resume on campus in the fall. However, district officials are already working on contingency plans that could include altered schedules, modified classroom settings or additional at-home learning. Parents, teachers and students need to be realistically prepared for more unprecedented pivots in the foreseeable future.

Plano ISD >
Written By
More from Joshua Baethge

Meet Dr. Peter Derman of Texas Back Institute

Bringing Hope to Back Pain Sufferers Orthopedic spine surgeon Dr. Peter Derman...
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.