When the two leaders of public schools in Williamson County led off the Update Williamson program Tuesday morning, they understandably pointed out some of the achievements and progress made in their respective districts.
Franklin Special School District Director of Schools David Snowden, for instance, mentioned the success of being able to purchase Chromebooks for all students enrolled in the eight schools. The district’s Child Nutrition program delivered nearly 190,000 meals to students from March through July and is still providing those today. Teachers, administrators and district staff are working diligently to meet the social and emotional needs of students.
In Williamson County Schools, Superintendent Jason Golden pointed out that Lipscomb Elementary School had been named a National Blue Ribbon School and that the district had 52 National Merit semifinalists. He also emphasized that the district is taking more serious steps to improve race relations in the schools.
Of course, accomplishments aside, both Snowden and Golden mostly addressed the challenges their districts have been facing since the outbreak of the coronavirus last March. Their sessions, which came during the Update Williamson program hosted by Williamson Inc. at The Field at Franklin and through Zoom, were as much a reality check as they were updates.
“School may look different this year, and we are all continuing to adjust at every turn,” Golden said. “It’s easy to talk only about the challenges of COVID-19 because this has made such a big impact on us.”
WCS and FSSD have had similar face-offs against the virus, and both have seen their share of progress and their fill of setbacks.
Franklin Special School District
As Snowden and his leadership team came together to address matters with schools closed last spring, they knew there was no template to follow. Changes seemed to happen daily, so they did their best to keep things simple.
“Early on we made a conscience decision to not teach new standards, new materials,” he said, “and to concentrate on the reinforcement of the standards that had previously been taught earlier than the 2019-20 school year. This was done partially to not knowing how long the closure would last and the lack of training of all teachers how to effectively teach virtually.”
Through the summer, staff began mapping out details for the district’s Return to Learn plan that would be used for the start of the 2020-21 school year. FSSD was able to secure Chromebooks for every student K-8, and hotspots were created for those households without internet connection.
“We’ve had a few issues related to connectivity,” Snowden said. “But for the most part, it’s been a very positive experience for both students and teachers. Teaching virtually is not easy, but our teachers continue to improve as they get more experience and additional support.”
Snowden said that 75% of students are attending school in person, while 25% have chosen to do online learning. He acknowledged that there have been positive cases of the coronavirus and quarantines, but the schools are mostly doing the right things to keep kids on campus.
“We believe we were able to do this primarily due to the planning and implementation of our Return to Learn 2020 plan, which set forth several mitigation protocols based upon guidance from the [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] and the state and local health officials to help keep our students and all of our employees as safe as possible by keeping the virus spread low. We believe these mitigation protocols that continue today have been instrumental in allowing us to offer in-person learning.”
Williamson County Schools
As Golden and his staff began to realize over the summer that there would be a significant number of families preferring to go the route of WCS Online, teachers and trainers face quite the challenge to prepare. And sure enough, the number of students who opted to go online instead of in-person could fill up three of the system’s high schools.
“We knew we needed to offer an online option,” Golden said. “It would ordinarily take years to plan to do it perfectly, and we had just weeks. We had over 6,700 students who wanted to do online learning, about 17% of our total student body.
“We have worked through startup challenges at every level, from staffing to schedules, instructional materials to technology.
“We know students learn best when receiving direct instruction from their teachers, but we want to respect this need for many of our families to be online.”
Families had to commit to one platform or another for a semester, and they have just recently indicated their choice for the spring semester that begins in January. Golden said those preferences should be tallied by the end of October.
“The truth is, our teachers and staff are working harder than ever to deliver instruction to our 40,000 students,” Golden said. “And when I say they are working harder than ever, this is why: Teachers are not only preparing for traditional on-campus learning, they also must prepare for remote learning. In addition, some teachers are preparing for WCS Online.”
While the effects of the pandemic have certainly taken their toll on schools, Golden delivered his Update Williamson talk with notes of optimism.
“We are still a caring, innovative educational institution that we have been for years,” he said. “We continue to grow. I am so proud of our teachers, staff, administrators, students and parents for working hard to adjust to school during the pandemic. We have so much to celebrate, and we will continue to grow and face the challenges that lie ahead.”