Alief ISD Superintendent answered questions in our exclusive Zoom conversation. See what was said

HOUSTON – Alief Independent School District community members got a chance to ask Superintendent HD Chambers questions in an exclusive Zoom conversation Wednesday night, ahead of the first day of school Thursday.

RELATED: What you need to know about the district’s 2020-2021 school plans

FULL COVERAGE: See KPRC 2′s full back-to-school coverage here

Here’s what was discussed in the meeting:

Question: What are the plans for social distancing in the classroom, halls, cafeterias and buses?

Answer: When the time comes to bring students to come back to school, we are going to phase a return to in-person classes. That way, we can ensure social distancing. As we bring more students in, we will continue with scheduling. The most critical thing we can do is control the number of students at school and in a classroom. As it relates to transportation, lunch and other non-classroom environments, we are going to have to work really hard to limit students who ride the bus. During lunch time, we might have some students in the classroom and some in the cafeteria to ensure distancing.

Question: What does the transition to face-to-face learning look like and when will that plan be shared?

Answer: Right now we’re starting 100% virtual. The coronavirus cases are extremely high across our district. At some point, when we get guidance from local officials, we will begin phasing in students. Some of our most vulnerable students, the youngest students, it is really difficult for them to be learning virtually. So we may phase them in sooner. Special education students are especially vulnerable and parents are frustrated. As quickly and as safely as we can, we will phase those students back to in-person learning. Some high school students take classes where they have labs and need to have access to school facilities. They may also be brought in early phases.

When will people know about the plan? Don’t know yet. We are monitoring health conditions and are working on a game plan. I can’t give a date because it may create a false expectation that may have to be changed soon after.

Question: How many hours will teachers be teaching online and what will the online schedule look like?

Answer: It’s going to vary based on the grade level and content being taught. The typical school day involves teachers in front of students for about 7 hours a day. We’re not expecting teachers and students to sit in front of a monitor for 7 hours a day. You might see a teacher have a Zoom classroom and teach them for an hour. But the number of hours teachers are expected to teach in virtual learning is based on the content they are teaching. It’s going to vary.

Question: If parents signified on registration that they have a device but it’s no longer available, can they request a device from the district?

Answer: Parents answered a survey from the district to find out what a student’s technological capabilities are. If you answered ‘yes’ on the form for technological capabilities but things have changed and you have a real need, contact your school. We are going to do the best we can to meet these needs. We purchased 30,000 devices and 16,000 reliable internet hotspots. We think we can meet the needs of the students who truly need it.

Question: How will COVID affect hiring for new teachers this year?

Answer: COVID has not affected our hiring of teachers at all. We are filling positions even in a COVID, virtual environment. However, if you’ve never taught before, it’s twice as difficult to teach virtually. I would say seek as much support as you can. Go to the Alief ISD website and apply.

Question: Can you tell us more about the inter-sessional weeks that are scheduled on the calendar?

Answer: We provided a fall break and then another break in the middle of February and then again for spring break. We’re hoping that as we get into the school year and as we assess students as best we can, we can identify students who may need remedial work. If there are teachers who are willing to work with those students during those intersessional weeks, we will provide that remediation for students. However, it’s built-in as a break to help teachers and staff and students catch their breath. If we do have a massive outbreak and schools are shut down again, we may use those weeks to make up missed school days.

Question: Will there be any grace or leeway for educators who also have kids at home?

Answer: Yes, we are going to be as graceful as we can. We are working for teachers if they need daycare for their own children. If a teacher is also acting as a parent for kids, we are hoping the flexibility of our virtual learning model will allow teachers to tend to their children and also continue working. There’s nothing that a school district can put in place that will resolve that issue 100% until students come back to school.

Question: What will happen to funding with children who are being poached by charter schools?

Answer: It’s a real issue. That’s an issue that affects districts even outside of this pandemic. What it does it do to the funding? Yeah, it has an impact. When a student leaves a traditional school district and a charter poaches the student, then we are going to lose funding for that child. So for every one or two or three students that leave, it’s a significant amount for that child. It then becomes a budgeting issue and we have to look at cutting costs. All families want is the best for their children. If they decide the best for their child is a charter school, then I will respect that. But if they decide because they’ve been recruited and it’s done when we are in crisis, then I don’t think it’s the best for that child. It could directly impact school districts and their budgets from a planning process. It could affect teachers too. The money will follow the students but the expenses for the district will remain the same.

Question: Halls (in Hastings HS) can become quite crowded. When in-person classes resume, how will social distancing be ensured?

Answer: Once we resume in-person classes, we will still control how many students are in the building. We will have to think about creating lanes in the halls that will show clear directions on the floors, cones and teachers directing traffic. We will manage the number of students coming back and continue to try such corralling techniques. There will also be a tremendous amount of adult monitoring also.

Question: If hours are flexible, why are students being told to follow fixed bell schedules?

Answer: There may be students using bell schedules with 50-minute classes in schools. If you think about teachers who teach in middle and high schools, we don’t expect them to teach for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. There may be times when teachers require students to follow a bell schedule but they will be learning in an asynchronous environment.

Question: What are the options to teach online if a teacher doesn’t feel comfortable going back to the classroom?

Answer: We made the decision to go virtual for as long as we think is necessary. The Texas Education Agency has placed some guidelines and rules for how long we can stay virtual. There’s an 8-week transition period. We are going to try to identify which teachers are not comfortable going back to school and why? If you have an underlying health condition, or a family with a health condition (defined by health professionals), we will allow those teachers and staff members to stay home as long as possible. But the guidelines from the state are that once a district has used up the 8-weeks of 100% virtual, we will have the option to apply for a waiver. If the waiver is not granted, at that point, we would have to admit every student whose parents want them to go back to school. In that case, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, we can allow teachers to stay home so long as it doesn’t create undue burden on the employer. Even despite a legitimate reason to stay home, if we have to have teachers in, we have an issue.

Question: Secondary school students have been told to follow bell schedules synchronously. Teachers were told to follow the schedule synchronously. Can you clarify?

Answer: I may not have been completely accurate. There’s no expectation that there’s a complete 50 minutes of teaching for every period for 7 or 6 periods a day. There’s a delicate balance that we have to create while trying to be flexible.

Question: My first-grader has no device. I was told to wait for a teacher to contact me but school starts tomorrow. Now what?

Answer: I would strongly encourage you to contact your school first thing in the morning. We’ve got the devices and the hotspots. Please contact your school ASAP. Also, go to the district website and contact us.

Question: How will special education students who often need intense supervision be taught virtually?

Answer: Between special ed students and our youngest learners, they are the most vulnerable students. There’s no great answer to this. What we can do is that we can give our commitment that we will follow the letter of the art and as soon as it is safe, we will get those students back in classes as soon as possible. As an educator, I am under no illusion that this is the best learning environment for them. They may be more susceptible to COVID-19, especially the medically fragile students, and so we need to balance safety and education. The conflicting messaging in my head is, ‘how do I protect students and staff, and how do I educate effectively?’ One has to be prioritized. I’m prioritizing the health and safety of all involved. We’re not sacrificing education. We have special ed teachers who are dying to get to their students but they understand the importance of health and safety.

Question: How will college counselors help high school students virtually?

Answer: That doesn’t get a lot of public conversation. We had students last year who were in the middle of getting college notifications. In Alief ISD, we have college and career access centers. We have a lot of students who are first-time college-goers. They don’t have the luxury of having family members who have been through this. But to all juniors and seniors, we are not going to allow this to prevent from you from getting what you need. Students have to meet staff half-way. Students will have to allow staff members to work with you. Keep in communication so we can do our part for you. But right now, our primary concern is getting the school year started.

Question: What about sports, fine arts and extra-curricular activities?

Answer: As long as we are in a virtual mode, we will not be having any after-school activities. There may be some activities that can meet virtually but for those physical activities, they are going to follow the same mode of thinking as bringing students back. While we are making those decisions, we will also be asking health officials about these activities. The UIL has a huge role in this but ultimately we will be making the decision based on the health and safety of students and staff.

Question: If an employee tested positive for coronavirus this summer, do they have to get tested again before returning to school?

Answer: For every employee in Alief ISD, if you’ve tested positive and you’re on the other side of it, you have to contact our risk management office. Talk through what you have experienced and they will give guidance. But short answer is you are going to need to demonstrate that you are negative.

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