A small school district in Erath County will be among the first to get kids back in classrooms. The Dublin Independent School District, about 12 miles from Stephenville, heads back to school on Tuesday.
"Our feeling was, the sooner we can get our kids back, the sooner we can get our kids into our arms, the sooner we can get them started back and stop the COVID slide," said Dr. Rodney Schneider, superintendent in a district with 1,200 students.
Schneider describes the Dublin ISD as a low-income, rural district where most kids come from agricultural families, the majority of students are of color and about a third are English as second language learners. Despite the economic issues, Schneider is quick to point out his students have some of the best scores in the state and Dublin is home to a National Blue Ribbon elementary school.
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The wellbeing of students was a tremendous factor in committing to the early start date.
“One of the things I heard time and time again from our teachers was, they just worry about our kids when they can't see them every day, when they can't check their wellness, when they can't check they're eating. So, it played a very large role in our decision to start,” he explained.
The veteran educator says the planning to get kids back in school started almost as soon as schools closed back in the spring. The district began buying large supplies of cleaning products and personal protective equipment and that was one of the things that gave us confidence to go forward.”
The next step was to figure out how learning would happen: In the classroom? In the home?
“To be honest, it kind of looks a little different at each grade level. They start from the perspective of, how can we do this safely for the kids? How can we do this safely for the teachers? And so, it's different from grade level to grade level and campus to campus,” he said.
The district opted for a hybrid model. Students will attend in-person, on-campus instruction Tuesdays – Fridays with remote assignments for everyone on Mondays. Teachers will be responsible for lesson plans for both, and Schneider says his team, “put together an excellent plan to help online learners so that we can offer parents who do not feel comfortable coming back yet, that we can offer them a plan that will keep their kids successful and moving forward.”
Come Tuesday, Schneider says the majority of the student body will be in classrooms with about 170 opting to learn at home. The district is offering technology training to parents and students so they are familiar with the plans and the equipment. Schneider admits connectivity, though, will be an issue in the rural community.
“So, technology-wise, even if we could get a device in every kid's hand, it would be useless because the connectivity would not be there,” he said. “I think that's an example of an economic disparity because the vast majority of our kids that are living out on the farms and the ranches and the dairies are lower-income, minority students and they're not getting that service that other kids are able to get in other places.”
What his students do have is a community where businesses do not hesitate to support schools. Southwest Dairy Association bought 1,500 pencils. H-E-B donated a backpack for every child.
“We made the decision that we were not going to ask our kids to bring any supplies. We are supplying our kids with everything they need. They don't have to bring anything except a smile is what we're telling 'em,” Schneider said.
Those smiles, though, will be behind a mask. Everyone will wear one, and everyone will have a temperature check before entering buildings. Teachers are reworking classrooms and cafeterias to allow for social distancing.
Schneider credits weekly discussions and collaboration among educators, health professionals and elected officials with going forward to bring students back as quickly as feasibly possible. On the final board meeting before the start of the year, the school board unanimously approved the plans.
“The board liked our safety plan; liked our a synchronous instructional plan and felt very strongly and felt confident in our ability to go forward,” he said.
“I certainly hope you understand, that coming back on August 4 is not any kind of bravado, and we're not trying to be the first. We're successful because we do what's best for Dublin ISD students and children,” he said. “We all agree. We're all in this together, and we all believe it's best for our children to come back. And, in order to do that, we're gonna do that safely. And, we're going to do it with the highest rigorous standards that we can have."
As Schneider talked to teachers through the summer and in the last few weeks, he has seen and felt time again the compassion and care they have for their students. He has about a hundred teachers on staff. All are returning with another 20 joining the district this year. His teachers have not seen their students in weeks and he’s had to temper expectations of sweet reunions with plenty of hugs.
“That's one thing I told 'em, when these kids walk up to the building on Tuesday morning, they're going to be scared but they're going to see some incredible faces of excitement and love and compassion. The hardest thing that our teachers of expressed is, 'How am I not 'gonna be hugging our kids?’”
The hugs and the tears have kept Schneider in education for more than 30 years. Seeing students succeed is his passion and he’s committed to maintaining the high standards that bring him so much pride. “Our primary goal is, we're gonna get these kids caught up. We're gonna get them back on track to our standards, and we're just gonna take it one day at a time,” he said.