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DR. MARK PORTERIE — Superintendent talks PAISD teacher vax bonus, virtual learning & more

A new school year has begun in the Port Arthur Independent School District.

The first few weeks of school have been both exciting and filled with pivots and adjustments. We are proud to announce our opening day was like one we have not experienced since 2019, as we celebrated our return to 100 percent in-person learning.

After 17 months of staff and students having to juggle some virtual, some in-person and some “not at all” learning, we anxiously awaited the arrival of a normal and complete return to campuses.

Dr. Mark L. Porterie,
superintendent of schools

Our employees and children bravely walked into classrooms dressed for success and re-energized with positive attitudes. Welcoming students back to classrooms that were equipped with desk shields and sanitation stations was a huge relief and source of great pride.

While our students were absent from in-person learning, we were concerned; not only about the academic gaps that were widening and the availability of nutritious meals, but also whether or not our children were getting enough rest and exactly how they were spending all of the extra time afforded to them at home.

We also had concerns about their overall mental health and wellness.

Since the start of this new school year, we have experienced challenges with COVID cases throughout the district. We, like everyone else in the world, are looking for ways to mitigate the spread of the virus, while bringing thousands of individuals together for the shared goal of educating our students, using the best platform available for them to be successful — in-person learning.

Mask Rules

On Aug. 23, the Port Arthur Independent School District changed the dress code to include the proper wearing of face masks for staff, students and anyone who enters a PAISD facility. A proper fit means the mask is worn as a snug covering over the nose and mouth.

Some may think we incorporated masks in our dress code to go against the mandate of our governor; however, that was not the intent. The PAISD Board of Trustees and I are responsible for the safety, education and well-being of our staff and our children. In order to try and do everything in our power to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, we put something in place we feel will assist with slowing down the spread of this disease.

Despite our best efforts to convince everyone of the safety and effectiveness of the COVID vaccine, we have employees that have chosen not to be vaccinated, parents who have elected not to vaccinate children who are 12 years and older and children that cannot get the vaccine yet due to their age.

Still, we encourage employees, parents, families and community members that are of age and able to get the vaccine to do so for the protection of everyone. We recently began offering an incentive bonus to our vaccinated employees and also to employees who become fully vaccinated this month.

Meanwhile, we will continue implementing daily safety and sanitation protocols in our ongoing efforts to lower the number of COVID cases in PAISD. Our priority is to keep our staff and students safe and healthy while keeping the doors of all classrooms open for in-person learning.

Virtual learning

There have been questions as to when our district will begin virtual learning. The honest answer is that we must follow the directives of the Texas Education Agency as it provides the parameters and protocols of online learning for our students.

We will implement a plan for virtual learning when we are confident the platform will garner better academic success than it has in the past and in accordance with TEA guidelines. At this time, we are focusing on closing the enormous learning gaps we experienced as a result of online learning last year.

Our plans are subject to change as we continue to explore our options and receive updates from TEA.

Last Tuesday, during a Special Legislative session, Senate Bill 15 was approved by a committee in the Texas Senate. The bill allows school districts that received a grade of “C” or higher in the most recent round of state accountability grades to offer remote learning to students.

However, under SB15, districts cannot have more than 10 percent of their student population enrolled online. When the time comes, we will have to decide the criteria for the 10 percent of our students who will be offered our online platform.

Districts have to carefully decide how we will accurately and fairly address the new bill. PAISD will develop and implement a concise plan for an improved virtual learning platform in order to ensure equity throughout the district with a clear vision for expected results.

House Bill 4545

Another bill districts are trying feverishly to understand is House Bill 4545. This bill requires accelerated instruction during the 2021-22 school year for all students based on results from the Spring 2021 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). The legislation includes:

  • Elimination of grade retention and retesting requirements in grades 5 and 8.
  • For any student who does not pass the STAAR test in grades 3, 5, or 8 in math or reading, there is a new school district requirement that says we must establish an accelerated learning committee and develop an individual educational plan for the student and monitor that student’s individual academic progress.
  • For any student who does not pass the STAAR test in grades 3-8 or STAAR (EOC) end-of-course assessments, the student must: Be assigned a classroom teacher who is a certified master, exemplary or recognized teacher; or Receive supplemental instruction (tutoring) before or after school, or within the school day.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what we are discussing and trying to implement across the state and specifically in PAISD. We must remember every district in Texas is faced with the unique challenge of trying to ensure every employee and student is safe while we work to close learning gaps that widened during the onset of COVID-19 and also as a result of last year’s virtual learning experience.

As we move forward enforcing state mandates, working to keeping everyone safe, and delivering the instruction our students need to be successful, I often reflect on the bright, excited faces of our children on the first day of school.

Students were — and still are – eager to learn and reclaim even the smallest parts of their normal lives. This is why I became an educator. This is why many of us who are still able to do so continue to educate.

We are here to help the next generation soar and become the best and brightest each and every one of them can be.

Please continue to support us, be patient with us, extend grace towards us and send your children to us. Trust that we have all of our children’s best interests at heart. Like you, we want them to be and remain healthy in their learning environments.

We need you to do what is humanly possible at home to keep them well and actively engaged in their education and we will do the same while they are with us at school. The 2021-22 school year holds new and exciting challenges and victories. PAISD will continue to work hard to be victorious over our challenges as our ultimate goal is to prepare all of our children for success.

Dr. Mark Porterie is superintendent of schools for the Port Arthur Independent School District. He can be reached at mporterie@paisd.org.