Canadian ISD officials closed schools here last week in response to growing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. In a rare emergency meeting last Saturday afternoon, school trustees unanimously approved a resolution delegating specific authority to Superintendent Lynn Pulliam to govern and oversee management of this community’s schools during the COVID -19 emergency.
The action was taken in response to national and statewide emergency declarations by President Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and in recognition that the COVID-19 pandemic is “an unforeseen and unavoidable emergency of urgent public necessity.” Though an extreme measure, the resolution reflects the need to protect the health and safety of students, staff, and the community, and to ensure that the school district is prepared to the greatest possible extent to do so.
In approving the emergency resolution, trustees essentially gave Dr. Pulliam the authority to make decisions regarding payment and compensation of employees during the school’s emergency closure, and to act on those decisions without specific board approval.
The resolution also granted Dr. Pulliam additional authority:
•To alter the school district’s 2019-20 school calendar by changing or adding school instructional hours and workdays as made necessary by the emergency closure.
•To create guidelines and make determinations regarding absences, leave time, leave days and compensation of any employee who is either quarantined as a result of or tests positive for COVID -19.
•To seek necessary waivers from the Texas Education Agency regarding missed instructional days, low attendance, or any matters related to emergency closures.
•To declare a catastrophe and take any necessary actions regarding temporary suspension of the Texas Public Information Act, in accordance with Texas Government Code.
•To procure, negotiate, and execute contracts for goods and services that are necessary to mitigate, prevent, restore, and repair damage to district equipment, personal property, and facilities, or to protect the safety of students and staff.
•To take other action and to seek waivers in accordance with guidance and instructions from national and state authorities.
•To act outside any and all policies relating to grading, report cards, and traditional instructional parameters, excluding the cut-off for class rankings.
• And to suspend the timelines for complaints or grievances under board policies. The authority granted by the resolution is effective for a closure through the end of the 2019-20 school year, unless the board takes action to extend its duration.
“There’s a possibility that things could happen requiring action pretty frequently,” Dr. Pulliam explained to his board. “This prevents us from having to meet over time.”
Dr. Pulliam assured the trustees that he would communicate any actions or decisions to them in a timely manner. He explained the paramount need to maintain the district’s ability to pay its staff during the COVID-19 shutdown. “What we don’t want is to start normal school operations and be without our school employees because they’ve had to go find other [jobs],” Pulliam said. “This is the most important part of this resolution.”
The board’s action to approve the resolution was preceded by discussion on the implications of each point. Andy Orrell expressed concern over the wording of the resolution and the precedent it sets. “If you just show up on the scene and somebody hands you this document, then we have no role whatsoever,” he said. “I completely have trust in Dr. Pulliam, but if my congressman signed away all of his authority to the president, I’d have an issue with that.”
Pulliam assured the board that the document enables decisions to be made quickly in an emergency situation. Board President Larry Smith reminded his fellow trustees that the board can still easily take the reins back by passing another resolution next week “if at any point, we felt it wasn’t being handled appropriately.”
Trustees agreed that the resolution presented a tough decision, but also expressed their confidence and trust in Dr. Pulliam.
“At the end of the day, we have trust in what you do,” Smith told Pulliam. “We hired you to do a job, and there is accountability still. If we think we need to come back and meet as a board, we still have the power to do so.”
Pulliam explained that he did not foresee or anticipate what purchases might be needed, but said the two most likely needs might be to change the district’s delivery of meals to students, and to upgrade its technology to facilitate remote teaching and learning.
He noted that a survey of parents indicated that at least 10-15 percent of the district’s students don’t have dependable internet service, and that one solution may be to establish portable hotspots in some areas of town.
Technology Director David Calabrese explained that he had surveyed all of the district’s campuses again, and found that there was ample bleed-over of the wireless internet to allow connectivity outside of the buildings and at the football stadium. “You can park in front of any of these buildings and get connected,” he said. “If you get out of the car and get closer, it’s 100 percent.”
In addition, he said, wireless internet access is also available in parking lots at several of the community’s churches—including the First Baptist Church, Canadian Church of Christ, and First United Methodist Church— and at the Hemphill County Library.
Calabrese sounded a cautionary note about portable hotspots, saying that the school district is required to filter any connection, which cannot be achieved with hotspots. He suggested, instead, that the district might equip its vehicles and school buses with WiFi, making it part of the school’s network. While it might provide a a workable alternative and comply with legal ramifications, “It’s very expensive,” he added.
Before approving the resolution, board members agreed to amend Pulliam’s authority to act on policies relating to grading, report cards, and traditional instructional parameters, but excluding the cutoff for class rankings. They decided that, given the disruption in classroom work due to the school closing, grades would be determined based on the end of the fourth six weeks, but that the cutoff for class ranking would not. Board members will address that decision in their April meeting.