New teachers will report to K-12 campuses in Midway Independent School District in Woodway, Texas, this week, and the doors open again for students Aug. 17.
But it was only in the last few days that the 8,300-student school system got county health department guidance on masking in schools (which it recommends), contact tracing, and other health and safety protocols to keep COVID-19 at bay as schools in this central Texas community start a second full academic year during the pandemic.
Complicating matters: Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also signed an executive order banning local authorities, including schools, from requiring masks and vaccines. That directive came just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a sharp turn and recommended masking in schools regardless of vaccination status amid the spread of the more-contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Frequently changing and often conflicting guidelines. A lingering pandemic. And exhausted students, teachers, and parents.
That’s just some of what Jeanie Johnson, Midway’s assistant superintendent for administrative services for the last decade, has to consider as she helps the district prepare for year two of the pandemic. It’s a leadership challenge she shares with thousands of her administrator colleagues nationwide.
Before the pandemic, Johnson’s job revolved around ensuring that the day-to-day operations that support teaching and learning were fulfilled: overseeing student discipline, mental health services, safety and security, and after-school child care.
The pandemic changed that.
Johnson now heads the district’s health and safety working group, one of the four committees assembled last year to create health and safety protocols for Midway. It’s in the process of updating and fine-tuning those protocols for the new school year.
Throughout the year, Johnson has been a kind of air traffic controller, making sense of the barrage of new information about the coronavirus and guidelines from state and federal agencies about how to keep students safe in school, and ensuring those guidelines are communicated clearly to students, staff, and the community.
Schools in Midway remained open all through the 2020-21 school year, and while some sports, like volleyball, were temporarily halted because of COVID-19 cases and mandatory quarantines, Johnson said there were few, if any, on-campus infections.
The district recorded 598 positive cases last school year—that includes some students who were learning remotely; the majority of the infections and quarantines were on the high school level.
“The schools had a lot of regulations... , but life didn’t end at 4 o’clock,” Johnson said. “That’s just when life began for some families. … There were people who wanted to continue life as normal. And that was OK for them, but it also did certainly affect schools.”
The hope that COVID-19 would be a memory by the start of 2021-22 school year has been dashed. Around the country, some communities already are reimposing mask mandates, and some schools, including in Georgia and South Carolina, have reported quarantines.
There’s also a kind of déjà vu for educators seeing the conflicting guidelines days before the start of the school year, a reminder of the uncertainty that preceded last year’s reopening.
“It puts the local school districts back in a difficult position when you know that everybody has a different opinion about it,” Johnson said of the frequently shifting ground on masking in schools, for example.
“Not everybody is going to be completely supportive of the measures that you adopt as a local school district. The difference this year is we do know more about [COVID]. But this long-standing disease—and illness—has not gone away, and there’s still the uncertainty. And people have a lot of fears and anxieties about that.”
Routines are informed by multiple sources of data and guidance
Johnson’s browser is bookmarked to agencies that research the coronavirus and whose work will directly impact students during the pandemic: the CDC, the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Health and Human Services, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“We wanted to be sure people knew we weren’t just making these decisions on our own,” she said. “That we were truly trying to get best practices.”
Her first task each morning is to pull up the Midway ISD COVID-19 dashboard, which is updated daily on the district’s website and lists active COVID-19 cases by school and grade.
She checks her bookmarks to see if any of the agencies has new information. If the superintendent gets a state update from a meeting with the commissioner, he’ll text or email her, and she’ll make changes as necessary.
Johnson also pays close attention to local infection rates in Waco-McLennan County, including whether cases were rising locally. (At the end of July, the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in McLennan County was 121.19 per 100,000 people, a high level of community transmission, according to the CDC dashboard.)
“We wanted to be part of the teamwork and the solution for making sure that COVID did not spread widely in our schools,” she said. “We also watched for high community transmission. If we were seeing an outbreak in certain areas of our schools, or in our county, or we were out of hospital beds and out of ventilators—that was also part of our decisionmaking. We just watched those things very closely.”
Fortunately, Midway’s schools never had to close last school year because of community transmission of the virus, but others in the area had to because of staffing shortages.
Setting clear safety protocols is crucial
The district assembled four committees to develop last year’s reopening plan, which included everything from infection control procedures to academics and extracurricular activities.
Johnson’s group worked on the guidelines for parents, including when to keep children home from school, how the school nurse’s office would function in the new schooling environment, and COVID-19 symptoms that parents should be on the lookout for. It also laid out procedures for parents to pick up students after contact tracing, which they had to do within one hour of being notified that their child had possibly been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
The protocols, posted online and sent to parents, included information on cleaning and sanitizing steps the district planned to implement. Among them: upgrading HVACs, putting hand sanitizers in classrooms, cafeterias, and gyms, daily self-screening for staff, distancing as much as possible in classrooms, and frequently cleaning high-touch areas.
There’s uncertainty ahead for parents and staff alike
In some ways, this school year is as uncertain as last year, with the more-contagious Delta variant spreading across the country and health and other agencies nationwide shifting gears at the last minute.
On the one hand, districts have the experience they gained last year, which puts them on firmer footing this time around. Still there is some trepidation over whether guidelines will change significantly and suddenly and force educators to dramatically shift course.
“I am not looking forward to the information changing constantly,” Johnson said. “It’s a big frustration, not just for me but for others in a district tasked with making these decisions. ... So, yes, [there’s] more confidence in knowing strategies and things that work well— because they did work well last year—but also fatigue.”
Johnson said she expects some protocols will be less stringent this school year, including for masking.
Also, while principals will continue to help with contact tracing, more responsibility will fall on the local health department.
“We did a lot of that last school year just to be sure that we were easing the anxieties and stress of our families,” Johnson said. “We’re going to continue monitoring closely the health of our students and our staff.”
Build on what’s already worked—and be sure to communicate
Johnson said one big takeaway is “to have many different strategies in place, to not just rely on one thing.”
The district is convinced that proper sanitizing works. Buses were sanitized between routes, and the district saw no COVID spread on the buses, which was one of the biggest concerns heading into the last school year.
And simple things—like proper hand-washing techniques and sneezing into one’s elbows—work as a preventive measure against a host of illnesses if students are taught how to do so.
“We really took it seriously,” Johnson said.
But she knows that sometimes schools are so busy that the simple things fall by the wayside. That’s why consistency matters, she said.
Internal and external communication are also key. Plans should be clearly communicated and consistently implemented across all campuses so that everyone knows the expectations. And parents need to be kept in the loop.
“We decided early on that we were going to be as transparent as we could be,” she said.
For one thing, the district had to be mindful of federal and state laws on student privacy and protecting their health information.
We wanted to be sure people knew we weren’t just making these decisions on our own; that we were truly trying to get best practices.
Details on Midway’s COVID-19 plans were posted to the district’s website and communicated via newsletters to parents.
Principals had a big role in communicating to parents and were responsible for informing them when there was an active case in a school and the student’s grade level.
Parents were also told in advance the district would be assisting the county health department with contact tracing. And they were made aware that they could check the district’s COVID-19 dashboard daily to find out about active cases in the district.
To ensure that the community had information as soon as the district had it, the teams continued to update the website as soon as information was vetted.
The district also got input from the School Health Advisory Council, a committee required by state law and comprised of parents and community members to ensure that districts get community input in developing healthy schools. Midway’s SHAC members included parents, doctors, and representatives from the local county health and emergency management agencies.
Johnson said she relied heavily on the local doctors who were serving on the SHAC committee.
“That was a good process to have in place as well to make sure we were hearing from many different entities—research-based entities, local health authorities—but also listening to the needs and desires of our families and parents,” she said.
Beware of information ‘whiplash’
In a world where information was rapidly changing—Johnson described it as “whiplash”—and everyone was adjusting frequently, it wasn’t always easy getting the message across. Sometimes the district would have to make an adjustment within 24 hours of publishing an update.
Last year, for example, the county health department recommended that schools reopen in mid-September, a recommendation that was covered by local news and spread on social media. Before the district could make any decision, however, the Texas Attorney General said the local health district didn’t have the authority to make that recommendation.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there as well,” Johnson said. “And we encouraged people to watch our website. ... We tried to provide empathy, for sure, to our families, while also giving good information and not jumping the gun.”
And there are shades of that state and regional disagreement carrying into this year: Witness the Texas governor signing an executive order banning masks, while the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District is recommending everyone in school wear masks.
“We unabashedly say and want to communicate that we are all in this together,” Johnson said. “That we want to be sure that we are providing a safe and healthy school environment, and we care about people.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2021 edition of Education Week as A View From the Hot Seat: How One District Leader Is Confronting COVID-19’s Latest Twists