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COVID changes face of education in Port Arthur; heightens need for parent support

The Port Arthur Independent School District continues meeting the challenges that come with a pandemic in a year with many unexpected issues.

Challenges have led to outside-the-box solutions such as delivering meals to virtual-only students and providing computers and hot spots for Internet.

Then, some challenges pop up quickly.

On Thursday, Thomas Jefferson Middle School was notified that staff members tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the temporary closure of the campus to in-person instruction for three to five days, according to information from the school district.

The campus will go to virtual instruction through Tuesday and hopes to resume in-person instruction Wednesday (Nov. 18).

“We have immediately implemented steps in or emergency response plan to minimize the impact, including sanitizing and disinfecting the school campus to keep all employees and students healthy and safe,” according to a district statement.

COVID & new thinking

Superintendent Mark Porterie led a virtual parent-family workshop earlier this week to discuss “COVID and our new way of thinking.” District leaders, parents and other interested individuals took part in the discussion.

“It has been a journey but it has been a worthwhile journey,” Porterie said. “It can only strengthen us. It’s really something to see where we came from, not even talking about COVID-19.”

While COVID is the current threat, the district has successfully made it through Hurricane Harvey in 2017, then Imelda and ice storms.

Unchartered waters

When Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath handed down instructions for the time of COVID, districts across the state were required to make important changes.

Porterie said PAISD pivoted more than anyone, adding this is something the district has never been faced with before. He offered thanks to the parents and staff for their patience and resilience.

When COVID first hit, it forced the district to rethink how to feed students who may not otherwise have a meal.

But in order to feed them, PAISD had to find them.

And they did.

Problems and solutions

Education is the most important thing we can give to children, but parents need be vested in their child’s success, according to Porterie.

At-home students waking up and logging in for virtual learning can only be accomplished with parents’ help.

“It should not be an option to get up for school or not,” Porterie said. “Children should not have to grow up before their age.”

School officials are finding, in some instances — not all but a lot — parents are not taking education seriously.

At the beginning of COVID, the education commissioner issued waivers for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, End of Course testing and attendance.

Yet even then the district had to “beg” children to come to classes in the process for them to graduate.

“There’s no way a child in 2020 should not have graduated with the process we put in place,” he said.

Officials even went to students’ homes to ask them to follow the process in order to graduate, something Porterie said should not have been an issue.

But this school year is different; there are no waivers for attendance, STAAR test or EOC testing.

So parents have to push their children.

“We have to push your children when they come to school,” he said. “Children have to take education seriously.”

While there is an option for virtual instruction and the superintendent understands a parent’s choice at choosing virtual instruction, he said there are some children that need the face-to-face instruction.

If they are to stay in virtual instruction, they must do their assignments and homework.

“Every day they are not on the computer and not in a classroom setting, they fall further and further behind,” he said.

There is no way to catch them up, he said, adding this needs to be a partnership with parents, the district and the community.

Responsibility

Computers are another issue.

The district spent more than $2 million for computers for students and provided them with hot spots to receive Internet.

All of this was free, he said, the district did not ask for anything.

But months into the school year the district is seeing broken computers, and computer with the screens broke.

“If someone gives you something for free, shouldn’t you take care of it,” Porterie said.

Parents need to be better at overseeing their children so computers aren’t continually broke, stolen or lost, he said.

Masks

Custodians are doing a good job of keeping the schools clean and every day the district raises the level of cleanliness of buildings, Porterie said.

The wearing of masks by students has not been a problem.

“This has not been one of our issues of contention. Our students are doing well and social distancing,” he said.

PAISD is looking to the future with possibly adding shields to desks for safety.

Other points of interest

Yadira Cardenas, a supporter of the district who has children attending schools in PAISD, offered a suggestion to help bridge the gap, saying some parents and grandparents need some help navigating the online platform Schoology.

Porterie agreed the district needs to make sure the community understands how the site works as it provides information on assignments, grades and more.