When tasked with returning students to classrooms after the COVID-19 pandemic, local schools rose to the challenge to keep kids safe and learning.

The 2020-21 school year looked unlike any other. While students and staff had to wear masks, social distance, keep visitors off campuses and could not participate in some events, there still was plenty accomplished in the year.

Gov. Greg Abbott has said schools are not allowed to have a mask mandate next year, so students will be returning to schools in the fall able to show their smile, something administrators and teachers have said they missed all year.

Longview ISD

In response to COVID-19, Longview ISD was one of the first in the area to bring on-campus testing to schools for those who wanted it. Later, it provided one of the first vaccine clinics on campus out of Longview schools.

Aside from COVID-19, the district still focused on other areas of education and advancement. It was the only district of its size in the state to earn national recognition with a Magna Award from the National School Boards Association for its East Texas Montessori Prep Academy.

The awards honor schools for efforts in serving students from historically underrepresented populations.

One of the changes coming to the district next year is the changing of the name of South Ward to honor Clarence Bailey, the first Black trustee in the district.

The board voted to change the name of the school to the Clarence W. Bailey Elementary School. 

In charter news, East Texas Advanced Academies added another two board members this year. ETAA is operating six campuses as Senate Bill 1882 charter schools. SB 1882 gives financial incentive to districts for allowing nonprofits to take over campuses as charter schools.

The board added former Longview ISD trustee Ava Welge and pastor and Longview Police Officer LaDarian Brown. Both trustees have experience both in the district and with children.

Pine Tree ISD

For Superintendent Steve Clugston, surviving the unknown of COVID-19 is one of the biggest milestones for the district in the past year.

"To come out on the other side, I think we’re all more appreciative of each other and what we do," he said. "I think we all, even though it was a tough year, I think we really got a resurgence of why we love what we do. We got some of that taken away, I think it just kind of made all of us appreciate each other and what we do. I think we appreciate school and we see the difference it makes in the lives of kids."

Clugston said he is proud of his district and what it accomplished in the shutdown.

"All of a sudden, it was a new world for us and I watched our bus drivers and cafeteria and deliver 3,000 meals a day," he said. "I watched our teachers come together to learn that technology. Watching how our people and our community came together to solve a problem, it was impressive. This year with all the different protocols that came out and parents kind of having to be an arm's length away, we didn’t catch parents complain about that; they helped out just so we could have school. To me, that says a whole lot about your community. I was proud to be part of the Pine Tree community."

Even with COVID-19 protocols in place, there still were new opportunities for students in the district last year. Clugston said he is looking forward to the future of the CEER program that launched this year. CEER stands for Communication, Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Robotics. The program is a chance for students who want to pursue higher academics.

The program is for students at the elementary and middle school level because most programs offering more advanced chances for students are in high school, Clugston said. This allows students to start more sooner.

Next year will look much more normal without masks and allowing visitors on campus again, he said. But, schools have learned better ways to clean and sanitize in the pandemic, and those will stay.

Spring Hill ISD

The new year brought a new superintendent to Spring Hill ISD. Penny Fleet was named the new superintendent in May after Wayne Guidry resigned and took an assistant superintendent position at Longview ISD. Fleet was an in-district hire and previously served as the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

She is proud that despite the pandemic, Spring Hill ISD remained open for in-person learning all year, she said.

"We weren’t sure how long it would hold," she said. "When we finished the fall semester with in-class instruction, we felt we reached a milestone."

Students also were able to take part in their extracurricular activities, which Fleet said she was excited about. Though some events were virtual or students sometimes had to quarantine, being able to be part of their teams and clubs again was a positive part of the year.

"We were grateful we were able to have a regular graduation ceremony back in the Belcher Center," she said. "We were grateful our seniors were able to experience a regular graduation."

The class of 2019 did not get regular graduation ceremonies because of the pandemic. Many were virtual or broken into smaller ceremonies.

Not everything from the pandemic had negative consequences. Fleet said having to go to virtual learning forced the district to become one-to-one student to technology ratio quicker than it planned to.

There also was growth in technology skills for students and teachers, she said.

The district is planning a school year that is much more normal. It is working on meet the teacher, convocation and other events that bring people together after over a year of social distancing.

The school also is adding more health science classes and a PAES lab that will help students with career and technical planning for life after high school.

Additionally, the district has a renewed focus on literacy for grades K-5th, she said. Mostly, Fleet is excited for the school to be open to the community again.

"Our school is the hub of our community, and we want involved and were limited, that was new and different for us," she said. "The primary goal for us week in and week out was to keep kids and teachers in class learning and healthy."

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Kristen is the News-Journal's education reporter. A Longview native, she got a journalism degree and a graduate certificate at Texas Tech University. She covers a variety of issues, including school finance, board meetings and happenings at local schools.