By Bill Spinks

The Waxahachie Independent School District board of trustees previously had set Aug. 13 as the return date for students and Aug. 10 as the day teachers report. In a special meeting on Monday afternoon, the board, in a 5-2 vote, filled in the rest of the 2020-2021 academic calendar.

The calendar adds 10 minutes to the end of each instructional day. Because the Texas Education Agency defines a full school year as 75,600 minutes of class time, rather than 180 days as it had done previously, the additional 10 minutes translates into 1,800 extra minutes, or the equivalent of four days of school. Teachers will not be asked to work additional minutes.

Superintendent Dr. Bonny Cain said the calendar is very similar to the one that the board adopted in March before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, with a few changes.

"We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for the final word from the (Texas Education Agency) commissioner," Cain said. "He hinted that we needed to adopt our calendars because the changes that he will be making will be more like restrictions … that wouldn’t affect the calendar."

Trustee John Rodgers was one of the "no" votes. Rodgers questioned whether it was necessary to lengthen the school day "for something that may or may not happen." Rodgers said that if a COVID-19 shutdown should occur, he would prefer to make up those days at the end of the year.

"My viewpoint hasn’t changed since the last meeting," Rodgers said. "I know 10 minutes doesn’t seem like a lot, but in a teacher’s world … Ask a pole vaulter how far a quarter-inch is, or ask a long jumper how far a quarter-inch is, or a sprinter how long a tenth of a second is. It’s an eternity."

Cain replied that the goal is to prevent school days from stretching into June if at all possible, for the benefit of students who are looking to begin college or join the military and for teachers who are making plans for the summer.

"I cannot imagine a rigorous instructional atmosphere at a school in June," Cain said.

District executive director of elementary learning Lisa Mott told the board that one of the changes made to the previous calendar was moving a bad-weather day from the end of the calendar to Good Friday, April 2, so that the district could better use that day in case of a COVID-19 shutdown.

Later, Mott said the district has potentially as many as 12 days built into the calendar that can be recaptured in case of a campus closure.

Graduation is tentatively scheduled for May 28, which will make the school year 185 days plus two work days for teachers. With 10 extra minutes per day, that works out to 80,790 minutes for students, which far exceeds the state standard.

"Our students are behind," Cain said. "Even though our teachers worked really, really hard in the spring, (there was) the switchover (to at-home learning) and the lag in that switchover, and teachers couldn’t get in contact with students. We were having a hard time getting the rigor we needed."

If no extended shutdowns occur, WISD could move graduation to as early as May 14 while still meeting the state standard for classroom time, Mott said.

Also during Monday’s meeting, the board authorized the expenditure of up to $300,000 in additional technology for at-home learning. The board had in a previous meeting authorized almost $400,000 for devices.

Cain said that a survey of parents was conducted on Facebook, and of the 523 responses, 45 percent said their children are coming back to school, while 26 percent said they would be choosing distance learning and the remaining 29 percent were undecided. Additionally, Cain said, 35 percent of the respondents said they needed a device and six percent said they needed internet access.

"If we’re going to have that many students home, and we’re going to have that many teachers on devices, we have got to have devices for them," Cain said.

Answering a question from board president Dusty Autrey about online learning, Mott said elementary students who opt to attend in this fashion need only to participate for 180 minutes per day, and secondary students for 240 minutes, in order to count for one day of state funding.

Executive director of secondary learning Dr. David Averett said the district has 1,896 new devices that are either on hand or on order, to go along with more than 2,000 older devices on hand. A number of devices still haven’t been turned in from the spring.

Averett said the district will need approximately 2,400 more devices to meet the need this fall, and said the district will be able to purchase refurbished ChromeBooks from Unified Connections at a price of $110 each, plus a $25 fee to install the Google app. A number of families have already bought their own devices for their children.