Each principal of the three high schools in the Sharyland Independent School District has seen their students, teachers and staff adjust tremendously in the wake of an unprecedented spring semester.
Sharyland, like all districts across the country, closed all their campuses in mid-March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. When students left for spring break, many had no idea they would not be coming back to school to finish their semester.
When discussing the new routines and issues faced at each campus, all three principals expressed pride in the district population for everyone’s continued unity throughout the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
Lori Ann Garza
Sharyland High School
In her decades of working for the Sharyland school district, SHS Principal Lori Ann Garza had never seen something like the COVID-19 pandemic that closed schools across the country, forcing students and staff to engage in distance learning for online classes.
“I didn’t know what to anticipate, I thought this would come and go in a quick way and then things would go back to normal but I was devastated to find out school would be cancelled for the rest of the school year,” Garza reflected “I miss seeing the kids every day. There’s a lot of value in face to face communication with kids and although we’ve maintained an instructional environment, in my part I would’ve loved them in the school building. It’s been quiet and lonely.”
Though an education is the priority for Sharyland High School, Garza believes there is value in a physical environment for students to thrive in that SHS provides.
“I miss the interactions and day to day environment. There’s much to be said about the social part of the public school system and all involved as part of the activities in school,” Garza said. “The kids have so much potential and were looking forward to finishing out the school year in their state and local and national competitions, it was hurtful to see these kids work so hard and see the end of the school year get taken from them.We have a genuine care and compassion for kids. We love seeing them excel and challenging themselves so that has been difficult to not see”
With the closure of Sharyland High School, students relied on online distance learning, which Garza said the Sharyland community were able to successfully take part in.
“These last few weeks have been unique in nature but am proud of my staff and students for accommodating and adjusting to the new normal,” Garza said. “We’ve been able to get quite a bit accomplished in a different manner, virtual and online which is unique and new to us. I feel our students did not have a hard time adjusting to this learning, it was more of a question of them adjusting but we kept with business as normal and were good to go when we switched gears after spring break.”
Garza said her biggest regret as part of the school shutdown is the graduating seniors missing out milestones that many seniors go through during their final semester.
“Senior year is supposed to be a huge, monumental point in your life especially after spring break with events like prom, senior walk, college days and other events we celebrate for them that we all missed out on,” Garza said. “They left spring break thinking they’d come back to say goodbye and come back to walk these halls but were cheated out of that. But at the end of the day they understood it was our responsibility to make sure they were safe. It’s sad but not the worst thing, they’re resilient and will come back from this stronger.”
Though the safety of the students is the biggest priority for the district, Garza remains hopeful for the day students come back to walk the halls of her campus.
“Not knowing if that will happen is difficult but we will prepare for everything,” Garza said. “If we get them back in class, that’s great. If not then we are ready for that.”
Sharyland Pioneer High School
James Heath, principal at Sharyland Pioneer High School, never expected his last year in school would include a global pandemic.
“In my 36 year career in education, we’ve never had things like this,” Heath said. “We had stuff like 9/11 or the Iraq War that affected everyone but this is affecting every facet of our lives. It’s very unusual.”
Heath is retiring at the end of the school and said being principal during a global pandemic is something he thought would be unheard of.
“It’s surreal, we had to transition so quickly from having students and not having students in school and teachers having to function without their students and vice versa. There’s a lot of issues to deal with,” Heath said.
Heath recalled being shocked when he found out the district would close all their campuses for students, forcing everyone to take part in online distance learning.
“We had heard rumors about the district closing for spring break but that’s all we thought it was, hearsay,” Heath said. “Right around spring break then was when we knew it was real. That was a shock, we thought we’d at least come back in May but in April, when school was still closed, we realized there wasn’t a reason to go back.”
Heath said he feels sorry for students, especially graduating seniors and those looking forward to spring UIL and academic events, who missed out on those chances of recognition.
“I kept thinking what the rest of the school year would’ve looked like had we not closed and can’t help but think of so many things that students didn’t get to finish,” Heath said. “Once that sunk in it was very disappointing and hard to deal with for our students, especially seniors who missed out on making their last impressions.”
He recalled that at first, students struggled with distance learning when it came time to have online classes.
“Students at first were either unmotivated to do the work because they weren’t sure if they had to do the work and others struggled because of lack of internet,” Heath said. “But we all powered through to get the work done by themselves. We’re fortunate these students are in constant contact with students online so there is communication going on. A big part was not knowing what the expectations would be, teachers and students had to adjust on the fly.”
Like Garza, Heath believes there is value in students being on campus for their education.
“We take for granted the human interactions we always have like talking to friends and teachers, walking to class together and keeping each other company,” Heath said. “They’re a second family at school and you get used to that kind of socializing. We went from a lot of that socialization to zero. It was a difficult transition.”
Ultimately, Heath says he hopes students remember what he says is the most important lesson the pandemic is teaching everyone on a global scale.
“Appreciate the moment, we take for granted how we think everything will be the same everyday but the reality is, as the whole country found out, everything can change quickly, especially when large scale events are involved,” Heath said.
Sharyland Advanced Academic Academy
Ivan Karr, principal at Sharyland Advanced Academic Academy, has one word to describe how his students have handled the COVID-19 pandemic: Resilient.
“All our students were able to complete all their distance learning assignments and earn their credits to graduate high school and several are graduating with an associate’s degree,” Karr said. “They could’ve given up and not done their work but I think our students were able to understand what they had to do to get it done.”
This attitude students had reflects the values instilled at SA3, Karr said.
“When they were recruited to join us when they were in 8th grade we told them, ‘if you follow our plan, our mission and vision, you will be college and career ready when you graduate high school,’” Karr recalled. “They kept on that path and wanted to overcome this pandemic by completing all their assignments.”
Karr recalled feeling disappointment at the campus having to close for the remainder of the school year after spring break.
“It was emotionally tough to grasp the whole aspect of being closed and doing everything virtually,” Karr said. “Everything we do every day, the face to face contact, being able to see students in the hallways, encouraging them and motivating them as they participate in events, that was taken away from them. It was disappointing and we tried our best to keep them focused with virtual events such as a virtual banquet.”
Karr said he and the staff would reach out every week to parents as a check in to students and their family to keep them motivated.
“The face to face contact wasn’t there, but we still had contact,” Karr said. “As a result, students have been 100 percent engaged and they came through for us.”
The face to face interactions Karr has seen everyday on campus is what he misses the most that students are no longer experiencing.
“Their smiles from enjoying being on campus is what I miss the most,” Karr said. “It’s unfortunate that they were not able to have a sendoff to say goodbye to everyone one last time. This was an abrupt end to the school year, especially to our graduating seniors. We left spring break thinking we’d come back but we didn’t. That’s tough to see especially when our staff and students didn’t get to say goodbye to each other.”
Karr said he is glad to have one last chance to see his graduating seniors again with the school’s graduation ceremony set for Thursday, June 11.
“But social distancing measures will still be enforced and we won’t even be able to hug each other,” Karr said. “It’ll be formal but still fun and exciting. I wish right before spring break we had a big event for students to be celebrated. A lot of growth and development occurs in school and a lot of students strive to communicate with friends and now, that’s something they’re not getting.”