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How are regional educational institutions responding to COVID-19?

Dr. Ira K. Blake 
Dr. Steven J. Berberich 
 Dr. Brenda Hellyer
Dr. Warren Nichols 
Dr. Greg Smith
 Dr. DeeAnn Powell
Lloyd Graham
Thad Roher
Harv Hartman
Bob Mitchell
Jimmy Spence

"Friendswood ISD has right around 6,100 students. We’ve focused on the importance of connections with kids. In these hard times, your culture is what shines through, and the culture in Friendswood ISD has prevailed. Struggle has come out of this but so have innovation and opportunities,” said Thad Roher, superintendent, Friendswood Independent School District.   
Roher’s comment echoed the statements of other panelists who participated in a discussion on May 5, 2020, as part of a series of virtual general membership meetings hosted by the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. The discussion focused on how the region’s educational institutions are responding to COVID-19. Participating in the meeting were Dr. Ira K. Blake, president, and Dr. Steven J. Berberich, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and provost, University of Houston-Clear Lake; Lloyd Graham, superintendent, La Porte ISD; Dr. Brenda Hellyer, chancellor, San Jacinto College District; Dr. Warren Nichols, president, College of the Mainland; Dr. DeeAnn Powell, superintendent, Pasadena Independent School District; Thad Roher, superintendent, Friendswood Independent School District; and Dr. Greg Smith, superintendent of Schools, Clear Creek Independent School District. Harv Hartman, chair of BAHEP’s Education and Workforce Development Committee, moderated the panel discussion. BAHEP President Bob Mitchell and Marketing Manager Jimmy Spence also participated.  
Educators make opening comments
Hartman said, "We have been blessed with exceptionally good leaders for a number of years here in the Bay Area Houston region.” He asked the panelists to comment on their institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.     
Among other observations, Dr. Blake noted, "It is really going to be a paradigm shift once the virus is under control.”    
There are 7,200 students in La Porte ISD. Graham said, "Our system is resilient. Our people are resilient. We know how to rise to the moment, and I am so proud of everyone.”   
Dr. Nichols reported, "Where does face-to-face come in vs online as we move from summer into the fall? All things considered, we’re doing remarkably well considering how things are going elsewhere in our communities.”     
Dr. Hellyer said that academic students will complete on time. She added, "It’s our technical courses that have been really moved around as to when they will finish. Our plan is to have all of the technical courses completed by the end of June. It’s been a struggle. About 35 percent of our enrollment of 30,000 students is technical.”   
Dr. Powell said that PISD has 53,000 students, and 86 percent were on free and reduced or low socioeconomic status before COVID.  "You can only imagine how this has impacted our community. Staying connected with our families has been vital. Virtual is going well for us, but it’s just not the same here in Pasadena ISD without our kiddos.”   
There are 42,000 students in Clear Creek ISD. Dr. Smith said, "We have the opportunity to re-imagine education differently. Perhaps it will be more of a hybrid approach. The challenge is to make it better over time. I’m excited about the opportunities, but there’s nothing like having your boys and girls in a classroom being taught by a kind, caring, loving, compassionate teacher.”     
Panelists answer questions
Following the opening comments, the panelists were asked a series of questions.  Dr. Blake answered the first question:  What challenges has the COVID-19 pandemic caused for higher education and in particular at UHCL?   
She said, "This is one of the most complex, complicated situations I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in a number of emergencies. What we have to keep in mind is that the impact of this pandemic is going to reverberate for a long, long time. It’s not about a new normal. It’s about redesign and innovation and dealing with what this pandemic is going to leave in its wake.    
"There are four broad areas that we’ve all had to experience. First, as most of the universities and ISDs have done, we implemented an emergency activation team trying to manage the disruptive impact. Second, we had to switch to other means to continue education and operations. Faculty had to convert their courses to online, and many had not done this before. This was a mammoth undertaking.    
"The third challenge has been the impact to budget and reserves. We depend on state appropriations. If summer enrollment is down and fall is down, then our appropriations and funding from the state will be down for the next two years.    
"Finally, as we continue to deal with the pandemic, we have to be looking at longer term goals. We have an anxious eye on strategic planning not only as to how we’re going to deal with the pandemic but also how we’re going to continue delivering high quality education and operating efficiently.” 
Dr. Hellyer answered the question:  What is your current take on whether colleges will be fully up and running by the fall semester?  Dr. Hellyer said that San Jacinto College District has 32,000 students registered for the fall semester. She continued, "San Jac is reassessing for the fall. All of the community colleges are designing their plans for the fall around modified face-to-face taking into consideration social distancing. We’ve had small class sizes. We’ve been proud of that, but that’s going to change to even smaller classes. We’ve learned a lot of things during this process. Maybe we need to do things differently.    
"We’re also building our modeling similar to what we had this spring. We start face-to-face and then we have to move online. I think we’re all anxious to see what happens through this transition of restarting business and how that impacts us. Is there a likelihood that we might not be back at all in the fall face-to-face?    
"We’re looking at a lot of different scenarios. I think we’re in such a critical stage right now of what happens over this next month. As Ira said, we’re in a critical funding year. Our funding for higher education comes out of contact hours and enrollment. I don’t see enrollment being what it was before. In a recession, community colleges normally grow in enrollment. We’ve never had this kind of recession – potentially depression. I think a lot of the jobs are going to change also. What do we really need to be offering?   
"We’ve been working with the lieutenant governor and some of our senators. Sen. Larry Taylor has been a huge supporter of helping us look at some potential items we need to be addressing in the legislature.
"I wish I could say that everything is going to be back to what it was. There are a lot of challenges including end of course testing and dual credit students. Changes have been made to allow some flexibility. I just worry about what happens after the fall. Students in our ISDs have had a lot of changes in their lives. There are a lot of conversations that need to keep happening no matter what the fall semester looks like.”    
Dr. Nichols answered the question: How do you mange the labs and the clinical kinds of activities with social distancing in place?  He explained, "The College of the Mainland has about 6,000 students currently. That number has been rising for the past four or five years until now. We’re not sure what’s going to happen this fall.   
"Just like everyone else, we decided that we were not going to be able to go back to traditional classrooms after Spring Break. I personally had a lot of concern as to how we were going to take our science labs to an online format. With the purchase of some additional simulation software, I was very pleased to find out that the majority of our sciences classes were able and are able to teach in an online format. We are not able to do that with microbiology and organic chemistry. The problem is that many of our allied health programs, such as our nursing program, need those particular courses. Until we get back into a face-to-face setting, I’m not sure how we can accomplish that.    
"One of the issues of particular concern to us right now is in our workforce program, specifically in our allied health programs. It’s the clinical component. So many of these health programs require students to be in a hospital or clinic where they can obtain certain requisite skills that the accreditation agencies require. Right now in this environment, the hospitals and clinics have not been in a position to allow any students to come into their settings. We’re not going to be able to take care of the essential needs of our health profession if we can’t get back into these settings. We don’t know what the future holds, but if there is a troublesome spot, this is what it would be at the moment.” 
Graham answered the question:  Can you give a story about the resilience of your teachers, students, or families?  Graham said, "Alcohol, pain, and stress don’t alter personalities. They magnify them. Our counseling staff stepped up in spades. We put together video clips. We’ve been to homes reaching out. I wouldn’t say we have drive-through counseling, but we’re available if you need to talk to us.    
"My food service folks have really stepped up, too. We’re feeding thousands of children every day and will continue to do so.    
"Access equity has been the largest challenge. My Transportation Department showed up to help us with our One to One initiative to distribute computers, to distribute hot spots. We had 4,000 of our 7,200 parents respond to our technology survey needing access and needing help. We spent another million and a half dollars for the devises and pushed them out.    
"Right now we’re focused on the hybrid start to the year, and I don’t know when that will start. I will end by saying that we are all blessed with fine people, and we are all blessed with complex problems.”  
Dr. Powell responded to the question:  How has instruction changed in Pasadena ISD?  She related, "We have a large personalized learning program with about 10,000 kids enrolled, and they honestly didn’t miss a beat. We monitor that, and about 96 percent of those kids are online daily being successful in the platform that they’re used to.   
"We have 43,000 other students who didn’t have that format of day-in day-out instruction. Thinking had to change as to how we interact with students and how we do assignments and how we receive those assignments back. We got over 900 devices out to homes that didn’t have internet connectivity.   
"Our board has been super supportive by buying additional devices and approving emergency purchases of items that we need to stay safe and keep working. Our Education Foundation has helped out in a big way.    
"The school year ends on May 28th. We plan to extend instruction into the summer for students who didn’t complete their coursework successfully. We are going to hold them accountable by supporting them and by supporting their parents to make sure we don’t leave huge gaps in their learning.”  
Roher answered the question:  We’ve heard a lot about online learning. Have you had a chance to step back and look at what this probably means in the future for schools?  Roher noted, "We’ve had 10 weeks of professional development about virtual learning not by choice but by necessity. It’s provided opportunities for globalization - reaching out to resources in other places. It’s broadened the authentic learning experience.  
"It’s opened our eyes to a blended approach. Especially if we have to cut down budgets, what are the opportunities that we can use for larger numbers in a blended approach?   
"I don’t know that we’ll ever have to worry about interruptions from hurricanes or weather days again. If we have electricity, hopefully the funding formula will allow us to just go online. For homebound students, it’s provided us the opportunity to see a different path that may be better and more efficient.    
"We’re also going to be doing a virtual summer school, and this gives us an opportunity to try that out and see what it might look like in the future.    
"When I talked to my senior leadership group about their concerns and what was important to them, number one was graduation and number two was seeing their teachers again before they moved on. There’s no substitute for that face-to-face teacher connection and relationship and what that means for students.”  
Dr. Smith responded to the question:  What is your take on the financial impact as a result of sales taxes being way down and oil revenues being way down? What is your sense of where that is all headed?  He said, "The greatest thing to remember is that as human beings, we are the most adaptive species on earth. I think financially we all have to work strategically. We should not ask for anything in this budget that we can’t sustain past this session. I believe cuts are on the way. We’re going to have to restrain and show discipline in areas that have just gotten back to some sense of normalcy from 2011. We’re going to have to reprioritize once again and strategically either abandon things or repurpose staff members in order to make that kids have what they need.    
"Financially it’s a difficult picture. We have work to do. We need to look at those options to ensure that we’re able to sustain past this next legislative session even if it means tapping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund as well as our own funding balances.” 
The final question asked was:  If classes resume in the fall, what will that look like?
Dr. Smith answered, "It’s tough to socially distance kids especially when you have 1,000 kids in an elementary school and 3,000 kids in a high school unless you’re willing to take a look at doing some split schedules – some in the morning, some in the afternoon, some in the evening. All of these are on the table, because I don’t believe that distance learning long term is the best way for our students to learn. We know that it creates a bigger gap in those who need direct teaching and learning.   
"Everybody wants to play football. Everybody wants the pep rally. Everybody wants the prom, but we have to make sure that everybody is safe and healthy.”   
UHCL’s Dr. Berberich said, "Seventy-five percent of my courses are in-person. How do we look at bringing students back in a setting with the issues that we’re likely going to face? I think it’s doable. What I think we’ve learned in coming through the crisis are the creative, innovative ways in which we’ve come up with solutions. We need to be prepared to be flexible as we go into the fall. We all recognize that until a vaccine is present, this is not going to leave us.”   
Mitchell makes final statement
BAHEP President Bob Mitchell closed the meeting by stating, "I’ve said for many, many years as long as I’ve been associated with this job that the strength of this community is our educational system. As I sat here listening to everyone on the panel, I feel even more deeply that you all are the strength of this community, and I am so proud and honored to be associated with every one of you.”   
(The video of the meeting is shown below. Click on the white headline to view it on full screen.)

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