The opening of the 2020 school year is bringing many challenges even as COVID-19 rates begin to stabilize in Tarrant County.
Currently, Fort Worth Independent School District administrators are planning to start classes – virtually – after Labor Day but hope they can return to in-person classes.
“We are optimistic,” said Kent Scribner, the Fort Worth ISD Superintendent. “We’re encouraged by some of the trends that we see in the public health metrics, positivity rate, cases per week, the hospitalizations.”
Scribner, speaking to the Fort Worth City Council on Sept. 1, said the district is looking for a “specific combination of metrics that will compel us to return to in-person instruction.”
He noted there are many opinions on how and when schools should open.
“Fort Worth ISD serves 209 square miles, and there are very different perspectives on this issue, in the different ZIP codes that we serve,” he said.
The Fort Worth ISD is currently planning to return to in-person learning on Oct. 5, but Scribner said the district would consider an earlier start if COVID numbers continue current trends.
Currently, Scribner said, the district has been busy helping students prepare for virtual learning by providing equipment and connectivity. Every student from 6th to 12th grade has a device, he said.
“That’s 42,000 Chromebooks, 42,000 devices,” he said. “Corresponding, we have also distributed 21,000 hotspots spending tens of millions of dollars. In fact, since the spring, as we have pivoted toward more of a virtual scenario, we’ve spent an additional $19 million on technology for the upper grades (6-12).”
Tarrant County Public Health on Sept. 3 released a school data “dashboard” to help school leaders and residents better understand the COVID-19 metrics in their areas. (See COVID ‘dashboard’ for schools)
Opening schools virtually has exposed the area’s weak spots in terms of broadband access and connectivity across the county, a key component for effective online learning.
“We need a long-term solution in Tarrant County as a whole to this broadband situation so that all ZIP codes, everybody in this city has access,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said at the council’s work session on Sept. 1. “It’s really been pointed out that the digital divide is even more than we all realized and together we formed a team to take a look at this and come up with a robust plan.”
Scribner said the district has come a long way since the sudden shutdown of the spring.
“Last year in the spring, all districts pivoted within a week or two and our response, much like most other districts in Texas and nationwide, was to implement a district wide instructional plan,” he said.
“We remember we were at a stay at home order and we had one instructional plan for the district and given the fact that our schools are rich in diversity with very different levels of socioeconomically and also race, ethnicity, and achievement diversity, we understand that the guidelines this fall will be a framework within which classroom teachers can use their professional judgment and modify lessons, accelerate lessons, as they see fit,” he said.
This fall will be different, Scribner said.
“So it won’t be a one size fits all version that many of us had to implement in a short period of time last spring,” he said. “It will be quite district. School districts really were on their heels in the spring and now we are in a place where we can push forward thinking, planning and moving and moving forward.”