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PNGISD superintendent recaps fall semester of no virtual learning

PORT NECHES — The lack of a virtual option for learning this school year might have come as a shock to students and parents in the Port Neches-Groves Independent School District.

But as the number of positive coronavirus cases in Jefferson County spiked during the fall semester, PNGISD officials did not cancel a day of classes due to the effects of the pandemic. (Some days were missed due to the arrivals of hurricanes Laura and Delta.)

“Like any school district, we struggled with a case here and there,” Superintendent Dr. Mike Gonzales said. “We followed proper guidelines and did everything we need to protect our staff and students. We’re blessed to get through the first semester.”

Among the protective guidelines, the district has been fogging classrooms at each campus on a daily basis.

District officials made the decision to go in-person only for instruction after a 2019-20 school year that was interrupted by the aftermath of the TPC Port Neches Operations explosions that November and the onset of the pandemic in March.

“Going through studies, studies show anytime a student is disrupted, it takes a student two years to get back to where they really need to be,” Gonzales said. “They’re close but not 100 percent there. It’s not to say these kids aren’t intelligent or can’t recover, but they’re missing out.”

The pandemic, now in its 10th month, did not keep the PNGISD from having to administer the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness exams, which is given to all public school students in grades 3-12. The Texas Education Agency announced earlier this month schools would not receive letter grades based in STAAR performance.

“We’re going to have to administer it, but the state has done a good job of making sure we understand and our staff understands it’s going to only be used for benchmark purposes,” Gonzales said. “That is to help determine where our kids are. It will help us in continuing to educate them. We’re trying to find out how this COVID pandemic affected their education. Did they miss out? Where did they miss out? If so, how to address it?”

The Texas State Teachers Association, however, was not excited about the STAAR moving forward.

TSTA President Ovidia Molina, in a news release earlier this month, accused Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency of “endangering the health and safety of Texas students, teachers and communities” by ordering students to return to campus before the winter break to take end-of-course exams needed for graduation. End-of-course STAAR tests were given September through December in the PNGISD, with other STAAR exams to come in April and May.

“The September and December testing is normally EOC [end of course testing],” Gonzales said. “We give students multiple chances to take the EOC in order to earn credit for the course. They are required to pass and receive credit in multiple areas per our graduation requirements.”

But Molina called administering the end-of-course exams “another example of Abbott and TEA bullying school districts to do things that are unsafe and make no sense” and asked parents to demand Abbott and TEA Commissioner Mike Morath relax testing requirements.

Gonzales said staff members are happy to reach the Christmas break, given what he called “a long, hard road” navigating the challenges of the pandemic and other obstacles in the past calendar year.

“Our people are extremely tired because we worked harder than ever to keep our students and staff safe,” he said. “It just adds a level of stress on people.”

Gonzales said people in the district are also excited to hear two COVID-19 vaccines have been developed and approved for use, although they likely won’t be made available to the public until the spring.

“Hopefully we can put this whole thing behind us,” he said.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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