If you have a moment, Google the phrase “The Lost Year in Education.” What you will find is hundreds of articles that lament the 2020-2021 school year. Articles of defeat and depression, of despair and dismay. A year that is lost, and nowhere to be found. John Steinbeck once said that “Time is the only critic without ambition.” When I look at the last year that my kids’ experienced, I do not see a lost year. I see a District that should look back and be proud.
As in all things, the tone is set at the top. Superintendent Dr. Carl Johnson and the Board of Education deserve a great deal of credit. The Jones Public School Board of Education approved the Return to School Plan in the summer. Was it a risk to move move forward with in-person instruction with much still unknown about the virus? Yes. Was it reckless to do so? Absolutely not. Business Guru Seth Godin says “The secret to being wrong isn’t to avoid being wrong! The secret is being willing to be wrong. The secret is realizing that being wrong isn’t fatal.” This is one business concept that translated well into the realm of education. The Return to School plan was ambitious and robust, while simultaneously leaving enough room for the unexpected. The primary focus was making sure students had the option of in-person instruction for the entire year. Because it was the belief that it was the best for the students. Instead of being scared, it was smart. Instead of being panicked, it was prepared.
From day one, Dr. Johnson made the message clear, he would not hesitate closing a single classroom, an entire grade or even the whole district. Throughout the course of this year, all of those steps were taken at one point or another, but it was all still part of the plan.
Yet, as parents, we were well informed, both of the number of cases in our schools and the ever-changing guidelines. In a year where my third-grade daughter was memorizing multiplication tables in the evening, I have a feeling that Dr. Johnson spent that same time memorizing CDC guidelines. Anyone who witnessed him quoting long sections of Health Department Rules from memory can attest that it was an impressive feat to behold. In a topsy-turvy year where information coming from Government Agencies and Public Opinion seemed to vary, the District was able to provide an atmosphere where students and parents could expect consistency. This is no small feat.
One primary example of the flexibility was the Remote Learning day on March 23. As the news of the second dose of the vaccine and the potential side-effects moved through the nation, workplaces across the county dealt with an onslaught of sick days all at once. To head off these risks, JPS called a remote day well in advance, giving clear direction and instruction, and once again showing that a good plan can weather many storms.
This plan was not produced in a vacuum. If your social circle extends beyond the 73049 area code, you surely had numerous conversations with parents from other districts. Many of the indecisive school districts bounced back and forth between in-person and virtual learning. Possibly just as frustrating were the parents that had to navigate the dreaded A/B Schedule. Throughout the year, it became difficult to track just how many fellow parents from other districts tell me “I wish my kids were going five days a week like Jones.” This is not a small complement.
The consistent tone that was set at the top certainly trickled down to the individual schools. I have the pleasure of dropping off my elementary aged students to school at the start of the day. Each and every morning, I see Elementary School Principal, Brooke Guthery, and Dean of Students, Sid McCoy, greeting kids, parents, and teachers in the car line. Even though the masks hide their smiles, their joyful enthusiasm set the stage for a welcoming atmosphere. Just last week, Middle School Principal, Lesa Elerick, was working tirelessly to honor the achievements of her students through a Virtual Awards Assembly, even if parents could not attend in-person. Then there is High School Principal, Mike Watkins, who had to help his teachers and students find ways to press on with extra-curricular activities in a way that maximized safety and security.
There is no telling how many times these leaders were forced to say “No” to good things. All for the sake of safety. All for the sake of the students.
When I look at the Jones School District for the year, I’m blown away by the resilience shown by Longhorns of all ages. From the elementary school students that powered through long days with mask requirements, to graduating seniors that navigated the world of virtual learning. To the State Champion Basketball Team that dealt with sickness both on and off the court, yet sealed the deal in dominant fashion. To the stellar senior singers, who against all odds were able to achieve superior ratings at the State Solo & Ensemble contest, even without in-person instruction at school. Finally, to the the FFA students that by all accounts, put on an outdoor banquet for the ages.
Two of the key character traits we want instilled in our students is pragmatism and grit. This year has taught our kids resilience in a manner unlike many of their predecessors, a trait that will benefit them for generations.
Like Thomas Edison said, “Vision without Execution is Hallucination.” None of this would be possible without the teachers.
Teaching was already one of the most difficult and under-appreciated jobs prior to the pandemic. COVID-19 increased both exponentially. However, for the trained eye, the extenuating circumstances brought out the best in our educators. I’ll speak from my own personal experience. We did not get to meet Amy McSwane, my son’s 1st Grade Teacher in the typical meet the teacher night. Our first interaction with Mrs. McSwane was a pre-recorded video message. In that message where she shared her love of teaching 1st grade, she looked directly in the camera and told us her goal was to make our kids fall in love with reading. Seeing the way my son has blossomed over the school year reminds me what can be accomplished with a passionate teacher. She truly met her goal. Like many of you, I listened in the other room during Zoom-calls on virtual days. I spent a few days listening in on Angela Brown’s 3rd grade class. Her face would light up as each student would log-in to the call, you could tell that she loved her students, but knew the necessity to meet online. Her blend of teaching that demands excellence but displays encouragement has been just the balance my daughter needed to succeed this year.
I’m sure each and every one of you with kids can tell stories similar to this. Stories of excellence and resilience and hope. It would be wrong not to mention the unspeakable tragedies that impacted the high school and middle school this year. The administrators and school counselors showed a tremendous amount of courage and empathy as they navigated waters they desperately never wanted to cross.
As the school year wraps up, and we wish our seniors farewell, it is healthy to take a look back at the road behind us.
Was this year difficult? Yes. Was this year unexpected? Definitely. Was it hard at times? Indubitably.
Was it a lost year? That is a resounding No.
To the bus drivers, support staff, cafeteria workers, teachers, coaches, administrators, school board members and every one in between, I say Thank You.
Well done Longhorns!