‘This is changing learning’: Principals, teachers keep academic expectations high in new era of online instruction

With a districtwide closure in place and distance learning underway, what may have once been considered “normal” for principals and teachers in the seventh-largest district in the nation has changed for the foreseeable future.

Due to the ongoing spread of the COVID-19 virus, school districts across Texas were ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott to close until at least May 4, and that has made for huge adjustments at the campus and district levels.

“I assumed we would shut down for a week or two. But when I heard it would be through April, it was devastating for me,” said Worthing High School Principal Khalilah Campbell. “We knew it had to be done for the safety of our students and the community, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.”

Principals and teachers across HISD moved their offices and classrooms from their campuses to their homes. Virtual meetings, conference calls and more virtual meetings have become the new standard operating procedure. Teacher and student interaction will take place in digital spaces for the foreseeable future.

For Worthing, which has achieved marked academic improvement in the past two years, the setback doesn’t alter expectations. If anything, they’re working even harder to raise their academic bar. When news of the closure hit, the Worthing team immediately went to work.

They quickly contacted every student enrolled at the Sunnyside campus to assess technological needs. Campbell credits the resolve of her team to continue serving students. 

“We’re working twice as hard right now,” she said. “Teachers are doing a phenomenal job. If it weren’t for them, we’d be in an even more scary situation right now. Teachers are giving students a sense of normalcy.”

Campbell, who led Worthing out of the Texas Education Agency’s “Improvement Required” label in 2018, believes her students, who endured Hurricane Harvey, will also overcome this test.

“Our kids are going to be okay,” she said. “They have a phenomenal amount of grit. They’ve been through challenges before, and we recovered.”

Dogan Elementary School Principal Margarita Tovar’s “normal” day during the COVID-19 closure follows a similar pattern. But for elementary schools, student access to technology is a greater challenge. And while the Fifth Ward neighborhood campus has had success deploying tablets and laptops to families in need, internet access remains an issue.

“My priority right now is ensuring that students have access to the lessons our teachers are creating and making teachers comfortable with the platforms we’re using,” Tovar said. “We’re excited about the HISD @ H.O.M.E. TV partnerships. That’s a great educational option for students without reliable Internet access.”

Like Worthing, Dogan too had high academic aspirations this year. Tovar explained they were projecting to improve their TEA rating to a “B” when official grades would have been released in August.

However, according to the TEA, all Texas schools will receive a label of “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for the 2019-2020 school year.

“My team has worked so hard,” Tovar said. “We were devastated that we would not be getting a rating this year. But our team has done a fantastic job.”

Dogan teacher Erica Edmonson, a veteran teacher in her 14th year in HISD, said she misses in-person connection with her students but believes that many educators will take this as an opportunity to implement more technology in the way they teach.

“This is changing learning, not only for kids, but also for teachers,” Edmonson said. “I’m definitely out of my comfort zone. But I always tell my students that when you’re uncomfortable, you are learning.”