Friday Focus – 03-27-2020

Dear Team,

Welcome back from the break this Spring. I didn’t say Spring Break intentionally. Because the world changed by the hour in the last two weeks. We didn’t have a Spring Break this year. Now, we are all dealing with disrupted lives, concern for our community, our nation and world, and missing our students, coworkers, friends and family that we find ourselves separated from. For me and my wife, Amy, we haven’t held or been able to visit our granddaughter Luna since day three of her life and she is now over two months old!

And in the midst of it, as a school district, we must find a way to do something that is completely unprecedented: Shift a massive traditional education system to at-home instructional delivery in an environment we cannot control, all in a matter of days. And many of you are doing this with your own children at home or elderly parents to care for.

But can I tell you what I know based on what I’ve seen from the Round Rock ISD team over the past two weeks? We’ve got this. Take a deep breath, take another, then say, “I’ve got this!”

How do I know? Because we are a family of educators, of leaders, who care deeply about our students and our community. We will rise to this occasion and we will be better, stronger, because of it. Let our humanity shine brighter than ever, lifting the spirits of those that are in real pain as a result of the novel coronavirus.

I know there has been some confusion even in our own District— and I sincerely hope last night’s message to our entire community helped clear that up — about what is expected of teachers right now. Let me be clear: It is absolutely OK for you to connect with your students. Not only is it OK, it’s encouraged.

Due to many requirements and complexities that are triggered when we are officially providing instruction, we asked teachers to not provide assignments to students during the two-week period (March 23-April 3) that we are officially in a “closed/preparing” status with the Texas Education Agency. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t check in with your students through the tools available in Google classroom or through phone, email or other approved methods.

As you’ll be hearing more next week, when we move into a “closed/providing instruction” status on April 6, we will be using an asynchronous approach to learning, which means we are not leveraging tools such as Zoom and other real-time video conferencing at this time. However, recorded video messages are absolutely allowed and, again, any previously approved method of communication is open to you. That decision is to protect both you and our students, as we can’t control all the environments.

Planning for this has been unlike anything I’ve experienced in my 36 years of education — and I’ve seen a lot. But through the marathon days and difficult decisions, you, my team, have brought me some of my brightest moments. Like this email from Taylor Van Zandt, a third-grade teacher at Union Hill Elementary:

Happy Wednesday,

Today I walked into my classroom for the 30-minute mad dash to grab essentials for helping our students. I immediately grabbed my document camera then looked up and gravitated towards my fully stocked “bucket filling friends” board. Here my students give compliments and appreciation to others (generally in the classroom). This board fills up weekly and I send them home with students the following week. Over the course of the year, this board has blossomed and turned into a place they can be honest, apologize, tell jokes to each other, and even write get well soon notes. Before we left, we talked about COVID-19 a little during our class meeting. A few mentioned your email to parents (the night before) requesting students who visit the affected countries self-isolate for 14 days. One of our own was scheduled to visit Washington. Of course to some of my students, when you fly on an airplane…that means you are going to another country. They were very worried that our friend couldn’t come back for 2 weeks. After correcting this misunderstanding, I assured them that any big decisions are made to keep us safe and we have to put a lot of trust into those big decisions. At some point that day, this note was placed on the board by one of my students. 1. She wanted to make sure she spelled superintendent correctly so she asked for a dictionary. 2. She did not sign her name because she said “it applies to everyone.” Times like these are when I do not envy your job but respect it. I know these big decisions are hard to make and weigh heavy on your conscience. We are one family. We can and WILL get through this together! I hope this brings as big of a smile to your face as it did to mine.

The note said: Dr. Flores Superintendent (with several erasure marks so she could get the spelling just right!) Thank you for making our schools safe.

That’s just one of many “bucket fillers” I received this week, and they mean more than I can say.

I’ve also heard from many principals who are doing such a phenomenal job leading strong, like Jessica Schock at Old Town Elementary, who sends daily updates to her staff, which include equal parts information and inspiration. She teared up when she returned Monday to an empty school, realizing the enormity of our new world.

But evidence of hope is found all around us. Don’t believe me? Take a walk in the park or in your neighborhood. Families are talking, smiling, breaking bread, and enjoying each other more than ever (or maybe I’m just noticing for the first time ever)! I think we are even laughing a little more than ever. Heck, I even think our pets like us more because of the current newfound gift of time.

During the break this Spring, when we made the call to close schools and our District’s executive leadership team, Area Superintendents, the Teaching & Learning team and many more were hard at work on this seemingly impossible task, I sent out a link to this article by Ryan Holiday. In it, he talks about the leadership of Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine Plague that ravaged his reign and how he rose to the task beyond anyone’s expectations in those catastrophic circumstances.

Holiday writes of Aurelius:

“He didn’t get rattled. He didn’t panic. He kept himself strong for others. He insisted on what was right, never what was politically expedient. He was resolute.” He concludes with these words: “Which is why we must use this terrible crisis as an opportunity to learn, to remember the core virtues that Marcus Aurelius tried to live by: Humility. Kindness. Service. Wisdom. We can’t waste time. We can’t take people or things for granted.”

It is time for us all to lead strong, remain calm for ourselves and each other and to not take people or things for granted. In Round Rock ISD, we will always choose what’s right for kids. I know I can count on you and I promise you can count on me. The world will be better soon and we will always be better together.

Rest assured, there is no other team that I would rather go through a worldwide pandemic with than my #rrisd1family!

Thanks for reading. I’ll write again soon.

Respectfully,

Steve Flores, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools