Last week we completed our first full week of running two learning models in FBISD, so I want to share a brief update on issues we are still resolving, and how we are planning for transitioning more students to face-to-face learning at the beginning of the third grading period in January. I am proud of our District’s efforts to support our students, staff, and community, and of the engagement that is occurring in our classrooms – both physical and virtual – each day. But we know the road hasn’t been easy and there is much work that remains.
Transition to Dual Learning Systems
During the past week, reading the various emails of concern from teachers and parents, I further reflected on our decisions that led to this point. The reflection enabled me to synthesize our journey, which has been consistently grounded in our District’s strategic framework. I also called several superintendents from other large districts to ask specific questions about their current situation and issues they are working through in their districts. These conversations affirmed my suspicion that other districts might have taken a different approach, but they are dealing with the same issues of teacher workload and stress, scheduling conflicts, and student performance. This makes sense, because we are all working toward the same goal of educating students during a pandemic.
As FBISD superintendent, it was affirming to know that, among everyone I talked to, every district is committed to student success, but our efforts and decisions have been more directly focused on ensuring student growth and achievement under these unique circumstances. Despite affirmation of my beliefs, however, I was still concerned and wondering why we have faced significant challenges with scheduling.
During the past two weeks, I have visited numerous campuses to discuss our decisions and implementation with campus staff responsible for scheduling. On Friday, I spent several hours with various team members at the district level, directors and managers directly implementing our decisions, to ensure my deeper understanding of the situation and to better understand how we can move beyond the remaining issues.
Update on Master Schedules
While our elementary school transition has been relatively smooth, we are still balancing class sizes at a few middle schools and a few high schools. This balance might involve creating new sections and/or further revising some student schedules. It is important to note that the level of work needed to create a balanced master schedule increases in complexity in the middle and high school levels, and we are working to complete this work by the middle of this week, although it might take longer at some schools.
At this time, teachers at all grade levels are carrying a load that is heavier than usual because of the sheer effort it takes to plan and deliver instruction under these circumstances, but many teachers are also experiencing an additional workload because we have not been able to “lock” the master schedule district-wide, which affects key functionality of the Schoology and Skyward systems that is used by all teachers. I want to share the following as background and context for our current situation:
There is not one “right” solution to navigating the pandemic. Districts took different approaches to standing up two learning models that met varying degrees of success and faced varying challenges. Despite comparison to other districts, FBISD has succeeded and struggled much to the same degree as other districts.
In FBISD, our entire response to COVID, from the beginning, was designed to provide our students the best instructional experience possible.
Our response to COVID was an aligned, organizational, strategic effort. Rather than delegating authority and autonomy to principals to develop their own campus schedules, schedules were developed under district level oversight. We did this to preserve equity to the full extent possible, to provide students full access to the courses they signed up to take, and so that we might leverage all the resources of the district to the fullest extent. The three key decisions that provide the most benefit to students have also raised the most concern among adults:
Accommodations: We have allowed teachers with “accommodations” to continue teaching from home. This decision has kept more teachers in the classroom when we need them most, but also raised concerns.
Some online teachers believe their class sizes are too large. Face-to-face class sizes have been limited to maintain social distancing, which has resulted in online classes being larger than usual and generally larger than face-to-face.
Some face-to-face teachers have expressed a perceived inequity between their required work effort and the work effort of online teachers.
We have attempted to address these concerns by recognizing online and face-to-face teachers do have different jobs, by assigning different duties or work responsibilities to balance the load and by making sure all teachers are held accountable for a full workday.
Cross-entity scheduling: We have used “cross-entity” scheduling to optimize the use of our teaching staff. This decision has enabled us to balance class sizes across campuses and has enabled us to retain many/most of the lower enrollment singleton and more advanced classes our students desire. However, based on my work with staff and conversations with other superintendents, the decision to use cross-entity scheduling and complexity created by this decision was the greatest stressor during the transition and has led to the unresolved issues we are addressing today.
The Skyward student management system is designed to set schedules once, at the beginning of the year. This means we had to work around the system, resulting in a heavy, manual workload for counselors and other campus staff scheduling students during the transition. The system is also intended to serve a campus, not a district-wide schedule.
Using cross-entity scheduling means no single campus can “lock” their schedule until all schedules at all schools are completed. A small number of our larger secondary schools are still balancing class sizes, which involves adding new course sections. This is what has led to teacher concerns about Schoology.
Teachers are accustomed to “linking” their classes to improve efficiency. For example, a teacher with four sections of ELA I can link all four sections, which would enable him/her to set up the course resources – calendar, assignments, etc. – one time for all four sections. Until the master schedule is locked in Skyward, teachers cannot link courses in Schoology.
Teachers are accustomed to us “cross-listing” courses that are “stacked” or taught simultaneously. For example, before COVID, we used this feature to create one class made up of two concurrent sections set up for regular education mathematics class and a co-teach special education mathematics class. In the system, the courses were set up independently, but cross-listing the courses allows the teacher to see them and manage them as one course for lesson-planning, posting resources, and grading.
Using cross-entity scheduling has created many more sections that need to be linked and cross-listed. For example, some teachers have an online or distance learning class made up of students from multiple campuses. In Schoology, the teacher sees a different class for each group of students from each different high school – they are seeing all the sections independently and having to manage each section independently until we are able to lock Skyward, cross-list, and enable them to link courses. Once we can cross-list these courses, the teacher will see them as one class.
On Friday, we arrived at a plan to begin cross-listing elementary and middle school campuses, which could be completed by the end of the week. High school will still be pending until all schedules are balanced and locked.
o Staggered schedules: Another important decision that has been a consistent source of concern is our decision to stagger the face-to-face and online schedules. The schedules were staggered for three primary reasons:
To allow effective and efficient use of staff for both learning models. Although it was originally intended that a limited number of teachers would be asked to teach both face-to-face and online, during implementation, we realized it would be necessary for many more teachers than expected to teach in both learning models. As we plan for the spring semester, now that we have experience with running the staggered model, we will evaluate this decision by grade level to determine if there are benefits to aligning the schedules at one or more grade levels.
To allow online students enrolled in certain courses such as CTE, fine arts, or athletics to attend those classes face-to-face. The staggered schedule allows sufficient travel time for students to attend some periods at school and return home in time for their next online class, without losing instructional time. Aligning face to face and online schedules would virtually eliminate an online student’s ability to attend a face-to-face class because there would not be sufficient time to allow for travel between classes.
At the elementary level, parents provided feedback that all synchronous instruction should be during the morning hours rather than spread throughout the day.
The Path Forward
During the coming weeks, parents will have the opportunity to choose a learning model for the third grading period that begins in January. To make sure that transition goes more smoothly, we are seeking feedback from key groups to inform our planning and timeline.
This week, we will be meeting with principals, associate principals, and counselors to obtain their feedback and suggested improvements. All feedback will be synthesized into themes and actionable steps that can be applied during the planning process. For transparency, we will report all feedback back to each group, along with our response/follow up actions.
During the next three weeks, I will be holding a series of “Office Hours” Zoom meetings for teachers to share concerns and feedback with me directly.
Also, during the next few weeks, we will seek parent and student feedback. Be looking out for opportunities to share your perspectives.
Since the third grading period begins immediately following Winter Break, we will establish a planning timeline that enables us to obtain parent learning model selections and adjust campus schedules before Winter Break. It is critical that staff and students go into the break without this change looming.
The number of students choosing to switch between learning models will determine the overall impact on our actual execution of plans.
It is also important to note that planning will be affected by the overall COVID climate in our region and community, as well as any revisions to guidance published by the CDC, TEA, UIL, etc. To that end, we are carefully studying and will consider revisions to all aspects of our Comprehensive Fall 2020 Back to School Plan.
We will evaluate whether our key decisions need further consideration or modification, including:
Whether teachers with accommodations will be permitted to teach from home or be asked to use available leave.
Whether cross-entity scheduling should continue.
Whether it would be beneficial to align face to face and online schedules.
We are developing a communication plan that will keep all members of the FBISD community in the loop each step of the way.
Thank you for your attention to this important message. I hope it has provided you additional context and background regarding our response to COVID. As always, specific questions and concerns may be submitted at Let’s Talk for a timely response from staff.