5 early release days added to calendar

The Abilene USD 435 Board of Education approved a calendar revision Monday night that adds five early release days during the second semester of the 2020-21 school year.

The early release days will be used for professional development, giving teachers time to work on lesson plan production. 

One day will be dedicated to lesson production per month. On those days elementary age students will not attend school at all, while older kids, ages 6 to 12, will attend half days with school dismissing at 1 p.m.

Dubbed Lesson Production Wednesdays, the days are set for Jan. 15, Feb. 10, March 24, April 21 and May 5.

The need to provide both in class and remote learning to accommodate students learning face-to-face in school and also remotely at home has forced teachers to create “double curriculums” to serve both sets of students.

Typically it takes years to create a new school curriculum, but no thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, teachers and administrators across the nation have worked to do just that in a matter of weeks, said McKinley Elementary Principal Mindy Sanders.

She told Abilene school board members that teachers had done what usually takes five to seven years and reduced it to just a few weeks.

That’s just one of the many reasons why teachers are struggling this year, according to information presented to the board.

Superintendent Greg Brown gave a rundown of events that had occurred since the November regular board meeting that ultimately resulted in a resolution from ANEA, the Abilene National Education Association.

The resolution questioned why the district did not follow the recommendations from Dickinson County Health Officer Brian Holmes to move to remote learning from Thanksgiving to Christmas break — especially when a neighboring county school district did follow the recommendation.

“I think it’s a fair question and I said I would answer that tonight,” Brown said.

The main reason was because it was a “recommendation” from the county health officer and not an “order.”

By making the suggestion to move to remote learning a recommendation rather than an order gives each individual school district the flexibility to respond to the level of sickness currently being experienced in the district’s schools, Brown said.

Based on that and after reviewing the health information provided by school nurse Brandi McGivney, Brown said Abilene schools decided to remain in face-to-face learning until Christmas break, which starts Monday, Dec. 21.

“Likewise with activities — we felt it was best to give it a shot, knowing we don’t have guarantees,” Brown said.

“To say we’re going to give up the month of December with hopes the month of January would be significantly different seemed kind of counter-productive,” Brown said, adding if Holmes had issued an “order” to go remote there would have been no question.

In fact, during the time the “recommendation” was issued, Abilene Middle School and Kennedy Primary School already were in remote learning due to the numbers of COVID-19 cases and quarantines.

At the same time, the district surveyed parents and all staff. Parent surveys sent the clear message that they wanted kids to be in school, but a survey of staff showed they had other thoughts.

“There’s no question our teachers are working harder and more deliberately than they have ever done in their entire lives and this is an extremely challenging time,” Brown said. “It’s placing them in a level of stress that’s been unmatched to any other times in our careers.”

It’s become evident that teachers cannot keep doing what they are doing. “It’s not workable,” Brown said.

Laura Relph, ANEA treasurer and a teacher at McKinley Elementary School, said teachers need support. ANEA sent out its own survey and 61 of the 91 members who responded said Abilene should be in remote learning.

The survey was sent to 106 certified staff, Relph said. 

“ANEA’s job is to advocate for school staff and that was to start by sending you a resolution,” Relph said. “We wanted to send a clear and concise message that approximately two-thirds of staff did not agree with staying face-to-face with Thanksgiving to Christmas break time.”

Verification was done to ensure no one person was sending in numerous surveys, but some did not want their names associated with “the thoughts and opinions being vented,” Relph said.

Plus, teachers were only given a “short” window to respond so some did not return the survey in time.

 This story will be continued in Friday’s edition of the Reflector-Chronicle.

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