How one rural district became a community lifeline

Dawson ISD's response to COVID-19 demonstrates educator dedication and the importance of communication tools
Cameron Shaw is the technology director, social media manager and webmaster for Dawson ISD in Texas. 
Cameron Shaw is the technology director, social media manager and webmaster for Dawson ISD in Texas.

Like most, we didn’t have a pandemic response plan in place at Dawson ISD when schools started shutting down in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Fortunately, our district, which serves 565 students in a rural area of Central Texas, had the pieces in place—primarily our website and a strong community—that allowed us to respond quickly, both as a school system and as a hub for community response.

Here are the actions we’ve taken since we announced school closures Friday, March 13.

Training teachers to be webmasters

Our teachers didn’t use our website often—not because they didn’t want to, but because, like most teachers, they focused on standards and testing and all the other hard work of teaching young people. In less than a week, they had to get up to speed on running their teacher pages, and now, they’re all online teachers.

Our content management system provider, Edlio, has a great help center with documents on creating classes and updating teacher pages, for example. As the technology director, social media manager and webmaster, I sent everyone a single document from the help center explaining how to set up class pages, and only a couple of people on my staff needed help after that.

Read: Updated: 137 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

Now, they’re all reaching out to me saying, “Wow, why haven’t we been using this the whole time?” And I say, “Well, I’ve been trying to get you to!”

There’s no way around it now. Those teacher pages are where students are getting their assignments. I can’t say that anything about the last few weeks has been seamless, but setting up those pages, and making sure students could access them, went as smoothly as possible given the circumstances.

I can’t say that anything about the last few weeks has been seamless, but setting up teacher webpages, and making sure students could access them for assignments, went as smoothly as possible given the circumstances.

Making the shift to online learning (over one weekend)

It’s a good thing that was such a smooth process, too, because things have been happening fast! Three weeks ago, our superintendent came up with a response plan and shared it with our principals, who then informed the teachers.

In a single day, Thursday, March 19, teachers created a whole new distance learning plan for students. On Monday, March 23, we had a packet pickup for students. Students on our elementary campus could choose to do either online assessments or hard-copy assessments if they didn’t have internet access or simply preferred it. Our junior/senior high campus offered students the same option, except the overwhelmingly positive response to online assessments encouraged us to transition to a full internet-based distance learning model for them, which started officially April 6.

Of course, we wanted to limit the number of kids who lacked internet access at home, so we managed to obtain and set up 100 hot spots. We loaned 220 iPads to students, as well—all at no cost to parents. Due to our efforts, every child on our junior/senior high campus has internet access.

Of course, none of that organization and effort matters if you can’t get the word out, so we created a new section on our website called “The Dog House,” which is our at-home distance learning center. This is where we include procedures, lessons for students, vital information for parents and guardians, current status regarding the extended break from school, the COVID plan, the meal plan, and more. We’ve been telling parents to check the website and our Facebook page, but the website is definitely what we’ve emphasized the most.

Read: 4 ways district CTOs can support educators during school closures

Using communication tools to stay connected

Like others across the country, our teachers and students are using a variety of communications tools to help them connect now. There are emails going back and forth, and kids are even talking with teachers on the phone and having individual tutoring sessions through videoconferencing, as needed.

Some teachers have created Facebook pages to connect. Others who were already using Google Classroom found it was easy to integrate with their class webpages. And others have been using Zoom to invite students to videoconferences to discuss assignments or provide extra help.

Read: Coronavirus: Keeping all stakeholders informed

Feeding students in their time of need

On the first Monday after the schools closed, we served 1,479 meals to 493 students. We continue to provide three meals per day so each student can receive 21 meals per week. On Friday, for example, we’ll give them meals to last through Tuesday. They get a hot meal when they arrive and some frozen food that can be cooked later, and we’re prepared to keep doing this as long as necessary.

So many kids depend on the free meals they receive at school, especially in a district like ours, where the average income is $33,300 per year. And because things are uncertain with people out of work, we decided to provide more than just lunch and breakfast, and offer dinner as well.

We don’t allow people to get out of their cars to pick up the food. The staff members and teachers have been volunteering to help put packages of meals together, and our food service workers are distributing them. Seeing their dedication and how well they have all come together to help their community has made me so proud to be part of this district and community.

Read: How K-12 districts are continuing to feed students through school closures

Looking to the future

For now, we will stay closed until at least May 4, following Gov. Greg Abbott’s order. Our superintendent will reevaluate the situation and decide if we should reopen or continue with closures, and we’ll adhere to any new orders from our government.

We still need to determine what to do about prom, graduation, end-of-year awards, ceremonies, programs and field days. Our students work hard throughout the year and raise money to celebrate their success when it’s over. That last week or so is when seniors get to have some fun. The way our leadership has responded to everything else, though, I’m sure they’ll find a way to get these kids everything they deserve and more.

Cameron Shaw is the technology director, social media manager and webmaster for Dawson ISD in Texas. 

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

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