On March 26, 2020, the City of Abilene and health officials from Hendrick Healthcare System announced the first positive test result for COVID-19 in Abilene. The COVID-19 coronavirus had cast its shadow over the community even earlier. Two weeks prior, as Spring Break concluded, public schools announced closure, first temporarily and later indefinitely. A disaster declaration took effect March 16, and a limited shelter-in-place order began March 31.
Many businesses closed temporarily or significantly changed their method of operation. Organizations and companies transitioned to working from homes or with greater social distance between employees. Services, events and social gatherings were put on hold. Non-essential medical procedures had to be postponed. Commonplace goods like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and flour became rare commodities. Coughs and fevers took on a new worrisome air, and familiar, instinctive touches became taboo.
By early May, Texas and, correspondingly, Abilene began to take steps toward restoring the business and social life of the city. Some restrictions remained in place, large gatherings still had to wait, hand washing and cleaning continued with vigor, and recommendations of mask-wearing met with mixed reception.
In the midst of an occasion of uncertainty, loss and fear, Abilene’s citizens, leaders and first responders rose to the challenge. Life continued, although at a different pace, and new lessons were learned, challenges overcome and hope sustained. The following five stories chronicle the unique and similar ways different sectors of the city faced the pandemic and its effects.
Doug Peters, president of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce, likened the coronavirus pandemic to a storm, and the Chamber to the first responders for the business community. As with weather threats, the urgency level climbed with proximity.
“Around January or February, we thought this could turn into something ugly,” he recalls. “But as a geographically- isolated community, we hoped maybe we wouldn’t see it.I think we all kind of felt like we were in a tornado watch and hoping it didn’t progress to a warning. We knew if it did materialize into a storm, the impact could be significant. And then, it went from a watch to a warning, and then all of a sudden, it became ‘Take cover, it’s bearing down on our community.’”
Peters said as a first responder for the business community, the Chamber considered how best to triage businesses, what resources were needed to minimize that damage and how the Chamber could be of help through that process.
Unfortunately, unlike a storm or tornado that moves through quickly, the effects of COVID-19 hovered overhead without a predictable exit.
“We had to get really good, really quick at being responsive,” Peters said. “Our job right now is to pay attention and listen to everything – concerns from members and even non-members. At end of day we have a job to do, and it’s to make sure this economy is everything we need it to be. We went from hoping this tornado misses us to facing an oil crisis and then this collapse of the stock market, making for the perfect storm and no time to sort it out; we just have to deal with it all now.”
The Abilene Chamber quickly assembled a few basic tools for their triage kit. They began by educating themselves on all manner of restrictions, relief packages and resources for businesses. Then they established lines of communication to local and national elected officials.That type of information and more was consolidated at businessresourceabilene.com. They also created the Compliant Business Certification as a way for local businesses to visibly demonstrate their commitment to safety guidelines. The Chamber also sent out a daily report to members with news about updates on the latest restrictions, helpful webinars and tips on moving to an online platform.
“Communication has gone through the roof,” Peters said. “We shifted to making videos because the lion’s share of what we put out was writing, and people are just maxed out on reading comprehension. We hosted a Zoom meeting with Ted Cruz about what’s going on in D.C. and West Texas, the oil industry, the stock market, long-term reopening. We want businesses to hear from sources other than just us. If it was feasible, we’ve tried to do it and well.”
One of the primary challenges for the Chamber, Peters said, was the nagging question of “Are we doing enough?” Despite the work of 37 staff members, weekly surveys of members and a broad swath of daily activity, Peters said he continues looking out for what might be missing.
“What do I need to do for our community?” he said. “That’s what keeps me up at night and make me want to get up and do it another day. My job is to protect the interests of members and the business community. No matter what and how much we do, there’s always a feeling of wondering if we’re doing enough.”
The Shed Market
Local business owners Stacie and Byron Stephenson, who own The Shed Market, also realized quickly they were in the midst of a threat that required quick action and offered few clear guideposts.
“When this first started, like everyone else, we’d hear drastically different things from one end to the other; this is either the worst thing ever or it’s no big deal,” Stacie said. “Byron and I are big fans of getting advice from other people in the same industry but it just took a couple calls before we realized no one else knows any more than we do. I remember telling him ‘This is it. No one can help us make this decision. We have to decide how to do this on our own.’”
In addition to a meat market and butcher shop, The Shed is known for its barbecue lunch offerings, and their store front and dining area was small, with community seating, making for what Stacie called “kind of a CDC nightmare.” So even a few days before the state required it, The Shed closed its dining room. Customers still came inside to place to-go orders, and fortunately, for the first week or two, business remained steady. But maybe too steady for Stacie’s comfort.
“It made me a little nervous for the safety of our employees with so many people coming in,” she said. “So we decided to do curbside and that meant figuring out online ordering. And that’s good because it pressed us out of our comfort zone. I’d been dragging my feet about online orders, but it’s working out really well. I’m thankful we had to stretch and grow because of it.”
In addition to curbside orders, the Stephensons again shifted their business outside its comfort zone to meet customer needs when grocery stores struggled to keep up with demand for certain items.
“When this whole thing first started, we were still able to get a lot of groceries from our wholesaler,” Stacie said. “Friends often asked us if we could get them sugar, flour or toilet paper, so we started doing that, and selling those groceries to customers. It was really a win-win because people needed products, and we needed to keep our doors open.”
Although restrictions allowed for the dining room to be opened at 25 percent capacity after May 4, for their space, that would mean only 12 customers. So, for now, they continue with online orders and curbside pickup and are thinking through how to combine what’s worked well about that model with re-opening the dining room in the near future.
“What does that look like – to not be what we were before and not be 100 percent what we are now? I don’t know yet what that will be. It feels a little impossible to create this new hybrid, but I’m confident it’ll happen,” Stacie said.
Texas Star Trading Co.
In January, Carol Dromgoole, owner of Texas Star Trading Co. downtown, had a mistake with one of her suppliers, and they sent a double order of jigsaw puzzles.
“I thought “What will I do with all these?”” she said.
Two months later, the world shut down, simple home entertainment like puzzles became a hot commodity, online retail giant Amazon slowed down their shipping of many items, and Dromgoole had her answer. She found herself not only selling through her double order but placing a new order for more jigsaw puzzles.
Like the Stephensons, Dromgoole had to increase her store’s online presence in response to having to close in-person retail shopping after March 21.
“By mid-March our business had really started slowing down, and we realized that about the only people we were seeing were tourists,” Dromgoole said.“Normally, that’s a really a good thing, but at the same time, we didn’t know where they were all from or what they had been exposed to. We just decided the best thing for us to do would be to close.”
While closed, Texas Star Trading continued with phone and online orders, but only a small selection of products were available online, so Dromgoole quickly began adding additional items to the site and promoting online sales through social media and email.
“Internet sales were not enough to make up for our store being closed but it helped,” she said.
She also applied for and received funds through the payroll protection loans to be able to keep paying employees during the closing and used the down time to do deep cleaning and organizing inside the store. Since shoppers couldn’t easily come to the store, Dromgoole added not only shipping and curbside pick-up of orders as well as free delivery.
Products like jigsaw puzzles that were conducive to the extra time at home began to be hot sellers, and Dromgoole looked for ways to capitalize on specific products people needed and move some of her stock through gift baskets.
“We had some gourmet grocery products, and we thought, ‘You know, if we don’t reopen, some of these things will start getting close to expiration.’ So we gathered up things – all still good – and did half-price gift baskets: $50 worth of goods for $25. You could send to neighbors or family, so that was a good way to use up product on shelves that needed to move and let people show others they were thinking about them. We had one basket where we put a roll of toilet paper and hand sanitizer in there too,” she said.
On May 4, Texas Star Trading was able to re-open their doors. Dromgoole said she and her staff focused on ensuring customers feel comfortable: wearing masks, wiping down counters and door handles, and cleaning the pin pad after each transaction.
Like many businesses, customers and families, Texas Star Trading must find a new way of operating that embraces the lessons learned during the shut down and the new state of the world. Dromgoole continues to offer free delivery for a limited time, as well as curbside pick-up, and plans to keep increasing the business’ online presence.
“I think there’s going to be a real change in how people shop,”she said.“There’s a push to shop local, but now people will be looking more online, even with local retailers.”
Coronavirus didn’t come with an instruction manual. For cities across the U.S. and across the world, policies and procedures weren’t modeled after well-established best practices and definitive research about COVID-19. For Anette Lerma, Abilene’s director of health services for the City of Abilene, that was the biggest challenge.
The city took note when other areas of the country were hit by the virus.
“We had all been watching the news since January, and since we’re in public health, we focused on talking internally about ‘What does that mean for us?’ and ‘What will that look like here?’” Lerma said. “It didn’t become an impending reality until late February, and then around spring break is when it really hit. The initial aha moment was ‘We’ve got people coming back from spring break who have been all over the world. How do we prepare for that?’”
In thinking through how to prepare, city and county officials were meeting frequently, watching outcomes in other locales and planning for worst-case scenarios.
“We were engaging our healthcare professionals, looking at projections based on Italy and New York,” said Abilene Mayor Anthony Williams. “Thank God those projections have not come to be, but at the time, we were having conversations about hundreds of deaths within this region. Everything that we planned was trying to create a situation where healthcare would not be overwhelmed.”
But there was no playbook for how to do that and certainly not one that accounted for the differences and specifics of each region, county, city and community.
“Preparation normally doesn’t look like this,” Lerma said. “You would hope to have some evidence-based protocol and for everyone to feel comfortable with what you’re doing, but no one had any of that, other than looking at what was happening in other countries. Even as it hit here in the U.S., we couldn’t even compare ourselves to other parts of country because we are more rural and separated.The data models are based on more urban-type areas, and they function differently than we do.”
Still, preparations had to be made and policies enacted. The staff of the health services department, around 50 people, took on new and different responsibilities related to an unfamiliar subject.
“We basically had to say ‘Stop what you’re doing. We now have to become experts on COVID-19 and not only educate ourselves but turn around and educate the community,’” Lerma said. “Our call volume blew up overnight, and everybody had a unique question – ‘What does this mean for our organization?’ ‘What does this mean for me?’ – so we had staff assigned to call sheets just to answer all the questions as best we can and learn the information along the way. It was amazing how quickly and efficiently everyone adapted.”
In addition to health services employees, other city officials also kicked into a frantic gear to keep up to date on latest data, communicate with citizens and find the best ways to keep the City of Abilene on track. The city’s emergency operations center met daily, even on weekends, for several weeks. Robert Hanna, city manager, led a weekly meeting with the city leadership team.
“We are constantly talking about the virus,”Williams said. “Information is constantly changing. From morning to afternoon, we may have a different set of data and parameters. We have very intelligent people at the state and local level, but it’s all based on hypotheses and best guesses. You’re trying to plan strategically, but the data and variables keep evolving. In something like this it is so easy to be an armchair quarterback, but in the moment, you can only make your decisions based on that data you have in front of you.”
Williams said he spoke almost daily with other branches of government – County Judge Downing Bolls, State Representative Stan Lambert, and Congressman Jodey Arrington – as well as keeping in touch with leaders from Dyess Air Force Base, the school districts and the hospitals to coordinate responses. Plans were put in place for hospital overflow: the Abilene Convention Center, Abilene High School or facilities at Hardin-Simmons University.
The city government asked for and received a quarter of a million dollars from local foundations to help Abilene families particularly affected by the virus and worked with the Development Corporation of Abilene to provide aid; the DCOA allocated $3 million to help manufacturing and industry in Abilene.
While communication with other leaders and constituent groups took on new significance, broad communication with citizens also emerged as a unique challenge during the course of the crisis.The city televised city council meetings, Williams spoke via video messages on social media, and online graphics and news releases provided updated local statistics each day. Still, changes in state reporting requirements, an evolving understanding of testing, and simply a variety of opinions about how to best address the virus’ spread created an environment rife for conflict.
“Social media is great but also a source of misinformation,” Hanna said. “And some people, frankly, enjoy stirring the pot, and that’s a part of human nature since the dawn of humanity; they just have a megaphone now. Getting out good information, getting people to understand that this is not just a math exercise – reports and testing are not as easy as one might think – really has been one of the hardest things.”
Despite a few hurdles of that sort, Williams said, as a general rule, Abilene’s citizens have stepped up to do what was right when the need arose and will continue to do so. At press time, Abilene and Texas are in the early stages of re-opening with some restrictions still in place, and restrictions of some sort are expected to continue for some time.
“When I listen to the healthcare experts, they say that 25 percent of our population will be infected, and that’s 25-30,000 people. But it’s better and more manageable if that happens across 18 months, not six months,” Williams said. “So as we transition back to some sort of new normal, I hope we do so in ways where we don’t compromise our ability to operate our healthcare system in Abilene, and my hope is that we learn more as a nation, as a county, as a city about not just this but other pandemics we may have to deal with in the future.”
Williams said he sees connections from Abilene’s past to its present and future.
“I think every community has DNA, like any living organism, a certain pattern. Abilene’s DNA is this: in crisis, Abilenians come together and work together, and they do so for the common good of our community. We’ve done this since we banded together and brought Dyess to Abilene, amidst the city’s growth in the late 60s, the expansion and development during the mid-70s, and as we tried to find ourselves in the 1980s.That’s what we’ve always done and that’s what we’ve displayed decidedly during this crisis.”
Col. Jeffrey Cook, 7th medical group commander at Dyess Air Force Base, had been attending briefings related to COVID-19 beginning in January. In the first week of February, he approached Col. Ed Sumangil, 7th Bomb Wing commander, and said “We need to have a table top exercise about how we would respond to this virus.” Sumangil replied “Get it set up, and we’ll do it.”
On Feb. 24, Dyess’ inspector general, public health team and teams from the Abilene community – including the city’s department of health, emergency management team and state representative – walked through broad scenarios to think through how to react and what would need to be done.
“That’s where I learned a lot of what we would need to accomplish in order to be able to protect the base from it and actually to protect the population too,” Sumangil said. “From that exercise, we would determine what the community limitations were, and that’s when we formed what our big objectives would be.”
A summary document from that table top discussion at Dyess was passed on to the Air Force Global Strike Command and became a requirement for other air force bases, allowing them to share information about identified limitations and vulnerable populations.
“From the beginning, we were thinking broadly about two things: minimizing the risk for our airmen and continuing to execute the mission. Those were really our big things,” Sumangil said. “Based on what we learned from the table top exercise, what we needed to do is if we have positives, spread it out in a way that keeps us below the threshold of what Abilene’s capacity is. When finalized, one big objective was for Dyess Air Force Base to not contribute to a large number of cases, keeping it under the Abilene community’s capacity for hospitalization.”
As a critical part of the nation’s defense, Dyess had to prioritize their ability to carry out their objectives even in the midst of a pandemic while also being attuned to the safety of airmen, families and the veterans who depended on services provided by the base.
“I could stop the spread by having everyone stay in their homes for weeks at a time and no one leave,” Sumangil said. “But then we couldn’t get the mission done. So we had to focus on minimizing the risk: teleworking, physical distancing, measures that ensured the safety of our most vulnerable population. We tried to create a safe zone in the base so when our vulnerable population comes on to the base, they feel secure. I’m glad to say now, although we’re not out of woods yet, for the most part we’ve been successful.”
As many Abilene leaders found, a lack of clear guidance on what needs to be done was a significant challenge. A second was lack of protective equipment. Masks ordered the week of March 27 had still not all arrived at Dyess as of early May. The ability of the base’s Virtual Private Network to support the increase of work-from-home also presented a hurdle, Sumangil said, as did finding the right way to communicate the seriousness of the situation to his community while not creating a sense of fear or panic.
Like the City of Abilene, Dyess’ emergency operations center met daily and would then update the leadership team and the crisis action team.
“That’s where all these discussions would take place – about limiting access to people from the outside, deciding who needs to come back to work, whether the Child Development Center needs to open, closing the gym, needing to buy equipment, all of that,” Sumangil said.
Twice a week, he would meet virtually with headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base to receive broad policy guidance and hear from other wings. A weekly town hall meeting at Dyess communicated action items and updates to base personnel and offered a chance for questions.
Airmen and their families took initiatives even beyond directives from the base leadership. The Dyess Spouses Club began making masks, just a few at a time at first, but their efforts evolved into 78 volunteers sewing and soliciting donations, and as of early May, the group had produced 1,000 masks. As a response to sanitizer shortages, a group of airmen decided to develop their own production to hold the base over until supplies came in. Others developed a virtual e-sports league, allowing airmen to connect with other bases in e-sports tournaments
Despite adjustments made to minimize risk and the challenges presented by the first few months of the virus, Sumangil said he is most proud that the mission was not compromised.
“We at Dyess Air Force Base have been able to deploy around 200 folks out of town relatively quietly in the midst of this pandemic,” he said. “This is why we put the measures in place. Dyess and Abilene continue to be an important part of the country’s national defense and that will always be our No. 1 priority. As commander, I want people of Abilene to really be proud of that fact.When the president called us during the pandemic, we were able to answer and answer quickly, and that’s because of support from the base and our leadership and support from the community.”
As Abilene readied itself for the almost-certain entry of the coronavirus into its population, doctors, nurses, medical administrators and other staff found themselves on the front lines of addressing the threat. Some healthcare professionals shifted responsibilities from medical to administrative. Others took on an entirely new specialty. Almost all found they had to collaborate with a broader community do their jobs effectively. The coronavirus pandemic changed the healthcare landscape in Abilene and required flexibility, creativity and forward thinking.
Finding the best ways to quickly screen and test as many people as possible was one of the first challenges for hospitals and medical providers in mid-March as the reality of the virus coming to Abilene became apparent.
Hendrick Health System rolled out a virtual screening tool that allowed people with COVID-like symptoms to screen themselves online, and from there work with Hendrick’s medical personnel to make necessary arrangement for testing and treatment if applicable.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in utilization of those platforms for screening,” said Dr. Stephen Lowry, a Hendrick anesthesiologist who served on Hendrick’s COVID-19 task force. “But those things didn’t even exist prior to March 24. Within a week after spring break, we were up and running and staffed by physicians and nurse practitioners and folks who figured out protocols and strategies to keep themselves safe while testing and keeping the community safe as well. Processes that had never been necessary were put in place to address a brand new problem, and those were online, live and in action rapidly.”
Lowry shifted away from his clinical work as an anesthesiologist to take on more administrative leadership through the task force. In addition to implementing screening, testing and admitting processes, the group focused on finding the best ways to respond to a variety of emergent and urgent needs but still ensure capacity for an influx of patients with acute illness from the coronavirus. Not knowing how hard Abilene would be hit by the virus, healthcare leaders had to prepare for the worst, including if the hospitals ran out of space.
“We looked at several contingency plans internally to deal with a surge without having to go off site, but, worst case scenario, we could go off site,” Lowry said. “Different leaders in the community – from HSU, AISD, the county, the city – everyone was working together to make sure we were ready for anything that came.”
Although the case load did remain manageable for hospitals, restrictions to help prevent spread of the virus made for some challenging situations along the way. Dr. Gary Binkley is vice chief of staff at Hendrick and works in internal medicine, wound care and as a hospitalist. He served on a subcommittee for the COVID-19 response that focused on the medical aspect of Hendrick’s response.
“Family members had to limit visitors, and it is hard when you have to call and tell them how a loved one is doing but they can’t see them,” Binkley said. “I’m not used to that as a doctor; we’re used to being in the room with family and patients. Cancelling surgeries that people count on is hard too. But we’ve been working through those challenges and finding ways to use technology to communicate with family members, and our telehealth has really ramped up. Two months ago this was all unheard of, but we’ve found new avenues for how to practice, and it’s impressive how quickly healthcare and patients have evolved into this new normal.”
Fortunately, by early May, the health care community was able to start taking steps toward a gradual return to some level of normal practice.
“As the city has progressed through the pandemic, and we saw where we stood on capacity and case load, then we started figuring out how to ramp back up to take care of patients who had been on hold waiting for procedures,” Lowry said.
At Abilene Regional Medical Center, administrators and physicians took note of the outbreaks in other areas of the country well before Abilene received its first positive case of COVID-19.
“It was probably a week or two before spring break that we started hearing about larger outbreaks in New York and Boston and Washington, and we really kind of went into increasing readiness mode,”said Dr.John Cole, chief of staff at ARMC.“We realized people would be coming back from those hot spots. We were getting information and learning how to be prepared. The initial three or four weeks was preparing for the worst but hoping for best. Looking back, if things continue to go the way they are now, that was a lot of the effort: just being ready by increasing our ICU capacity to deal with an outbreak if need to be.”
A common theme among leaders responsible for Abilene’s response to the pandemic has been the need for cooperation with various sectors of the community as well as with others in the same industry.
“Typically, a chief of staff role is internal within the hospital staff, dealing with issues for physicians and how we coordinate with each other,” Cole said. “That all of a sudden became greatly broadened with the pandemic, because we started working with more people outside the hospital. One of the biggest things that came out of this was the coordinated effort between ARMC, Hendrick, the public health department, the city health department and the county medical society in how those physicians and leaderships came together. As much as we could, we wanted to give the public a message of solidarity on how we are doing things. Hendrick and ARMC ran parallel as much as we could on responses, both the shut down and beginning to reopen.”
For some practitioners, the arrival of the coronavirus and its accompanying restrictions meant taking on a completely new role and method of practice. Dr. Laura Bennett, plastic surgeon and owner of Image Sculptors, found herself pivoting from her usual cosmetic surgery role to overseeing and directly administering COVID-19 testing for Abilene Diagnostic Clinic.
Image Sculptors Medical Day Spa is affiliated with Abilene Diagnostic Clinic, so as plastic surgery was restricted, Bennett saw an opportunity to change gears within her workplace.
“When the state said everything elective needed to be closed, I was worried about my girls,” Bennett said, referring to the employment of her staff.“And as I worried about them,I also learned that our walk-in clinic would be converted to be a drive-up testing site, and they would need someone to run it. All the girls in my office were brilliant and amazing. They changed gears and swapped from doing aesthetics or nursing duties to doing flu and strep tests, and I was out there in a hazmat suit doing COVID-19 tests. The other doctors in our clinic were busy enough doing telemedicine and didn’t have the time to do all that on their own, so I spearheaded the COVID testing. Here I am a plastic surgeon, but I was blessed with opportunity to lead a drive-up testing clinic.”
Abilene Diagnostic conducted nearly 2,000 COVID-19 tests in March, April and early May. Some patients came in on their own, needing screening and a full appointment, while others were sent to the clinic for testing from another physician. ADC also served as the source for all out-patient testing for Abilene Regional. Bennett shared clinic duties with Natalie Ashmore, a nurse practitioner, and Dr. Lynn Robinson. The clinic was open seven days a week, so the three shared shifts to cover all hours.
“Because of the volume and the of risk of infection, it was wiser for us to come out to the car, so patients would not be exposed to a positive patient in clinic,” Bennett said. “It was a lot harder on us. Usually when I see a patient, I’m going from room to room, but here I would have to suit up in a hazmat suit, mask and face shield and go out to their car. In terms of seeing someone, it’s a lot more preparation.”
The volume of testing conducted by the clinic made it possible for them to identify outbreaks and hot spots in certain places within the area and recommend wider testing in those places.
“Abilene really didn’t have a faster growing rate of people getting the virus,” Bennett said. “What we did was identify hot spots and test people who were asymptomatic. Most cities were only testing the sickest of sick. In Austin or Houston, for example, if you’re sick they’ll test you, but otherwise not. Because Abilene Diagnostic Clinic had enough tests, once we identified areas with higher rates of infection, we could go in and test asymptomatic populations and try to prevent the spread. But the key is having those tests. We really didn’t have a greater growth rate or higher infection compared to other places; we were just able to identify our asymptomatic carriers, and that’s an amazing way to keep our community safe. We were able to identify people who might not have known they were sick, and get them to stay home. The numbers seemed scary, but we were actually making our town safer. It’s great to be able to see that and be a part of it. Abilene has been very proactive, and I love that we are a small town with great healthcare.”
By early May, when state restrictions on elective surgeries were lifted, Bennett and her staff, like many others in the healthcare industry, began the gradual transition back to their previous work. She said by mid-summer she hopes the Abilene community will have made progress in re-opening gradually as well.
“I hope we will have figured out what that new ‘normal’ is and that we can maintain healthy safety precautions but open up a little more and see a more open market where businesses can flourish,” she said. “We’re probably not ready for big mass group gatherings yet, but I would hope that we will have seen that opening up has not changed our curve. Hopefully, hand sanitizing and careful social distancing practices can keep us from having an explosion of cases, and we can continue to reopen as we safely accomplish that.”
David Young was looking forward to having a break during spring break. Joey Light had driven 10 hours to visit his daughter and family in Kansas City. On Wednesday of spring break, however, both of Abilene’s superintendents realized their Spring Break was taking a sudden change in direction, just as many Abilenians realized their lives were as well.
“This feels like about nine years ago,” joked Young, superintendent of Abilene Independent School district, when recounting that day about six weeks later. “I had a pretty normal first half of Spring Break. We had heard about the coronavirus, but it felt like this thing that was happening in other places to other people, at least to me. But by the night of Wednesday, March 11, it became pretty clear.”
Light, superintendent of Wylie Independent School District, had a fairly uneventful drive to Kansas on Wednesday,
despite fielding a couple of calls as concerns began to emerge, but within hours of arriving at his daughter’s house and beginning to play with his grandchildren, he started to realize he, instead, needed to be heading back home. With no flights available, he spent Thursday making the driving trek back and staying on the phone with his administration and in communication with Young as well.
Both the leaders of Abilene’s public school districts faced the realization that the rapid spread of COVID-19 coupled with the travel of spring break meant they had to make adjustments before students and faculty/staff could safely return to school. On Friday, March 13, the districts jointly announced that they would close for an extra three days after spring break.
“At that point it was about processing, taking inventory, seeing who had traveled where for faculty and staff, and then developing a process for doing the same with students,” Young said. “We were making plans then for how to get over this hump and get back to normal by end of week.”
The administrators in both districts worked long days through the end of the spring break week and straight through the weekend, including Dr. Dan Dukes, associate superintendent for instruction and curriculum at AISD. By Sunday, the situation had changed enough that the need to prepare for online instruction became a central topic of conversation.
“At some point I asked Dan the question ‘Where are we in terms of online instruction?’ and he said ‘We’re nowhere,’” Young recalls.
And with that daunting starting line, the race was on. After the decision on Sunday to create online content, the AISD curriculum and instruction and information technology departments were tasked to start building it on the Monday after spring break. On Tuesday, principals came in for training on the system, and on Wednesday, teachers came in to begin building the curriculum.
“I’ve not worked more in my life than that week. But by the following Monday we had those first week’s lessons online,” Dukes said.
Young credits the swift response to the need for online learning to his administrative team.
“We went from zero to 70 in a heartbeat because of Dan’s leadership and his team of instructional technology specialists and content coordinators,” Young said. “We went from nothing to a robust system in every class.”
It was a good thing they did because by Monday, March 16, the districts had extended the closure through the rest of the week, and by Wednesday, March 18, it became indefinite.
In the south part of town, things were moving at a similarly unprecedented pace.
“We were meeting with the education commissioner every day on a conference call and making plans with our administrative staff over weekend,” Light said. “By the 16th [Monday], the governor had waived the STAAR test. Teachers and principals came up with plans and some parameters, created packets, put content online. By Thursday, our campuses felt like they were ready to go. We were still thinking through how to screen people as they came to the building and how to bring them in in waves. But by the 19th, the governor closed schools until April 3. So then we shifted again to saying ‘OK, yes, we’re doing packets and online.’ By the 20th we were able to start the at-home learning and packet pick-ups.”
Particularly in those first few days and weeks, Light and Young stayed in regular communication with each other, often making joint announcements as the closures changed, and also with other nearby districts to coordinate responses and think through the impact on their shared community.
“We all agreed when we said we were closing for three days, it was about taking inventory to be able to start safely,” Young said. “But we quickly realized, this isn’t going to restart. At first we were announcing week by week, and then we went to every two weeks, and then realized it was going to be indefinite. We wanted to give parents the ability to plan because it is a hardship on working parents.”
Two other hardships the districts quickly recognized were access to internet and technology for online learning and access to the meals on which many families depended through the school nutrition department.
Abilene ISD began distributing Chromebooks the Thursday after spring break and offered several other days for families to pick them up as well over the next week. Parents turned out in droves, and keeping them appropriately distanced got tricky, so the district moved to offering them in a drive-through format, until they ran out of the district’s 5,200 devices.
“That is the hardest piece: how to get every student access to curriculum,”Dukes said.
Like Young and Dukes, Light considers Wylie’s quick move to what they referred to as “at home learning” (a combination of online learning and hard copy packets), one of their biggest achievements.
“I really think the delivery of instruction was a homerun,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how quickly we shifted from leaving for spring break with everything normal, and then within two weeks we’re delivering instruction in a totally different way. I think if you consider how that happened across the state, I would almost call it the COVID-19 miracle. If you’d ever said,‘Y’all go do this in two weeks,’ we’d all have just been pitching our hands in the air saying ‘We can’t do that!’ But they did it and did it well. I’m so proud of how the staff came together.”
A few weeks into online learning, AISD recognized the need to offer internet access in areas where it wasn’t readily available.Dubbed the Park and Learn Initiative, five buses parked in locations around Abilene beginning April 6 to provide wi-fi to the area. Buses were in the pre-determined locations from 9-11 a.m. each school day.
When it came to providing food, Abilene ISD, with the help of community partners, quickly mobilized a a seven-site feeding system with breakfast and grab-and-go lunch available to any students who needed it and had that program up and running by the Tuesday after spring break. The system later expanded to 13 sites, and for a while, the district was handing out almost 4,000 meals a day. The numbers decreased some as the weeks went on, but by year’s end, the district had served more than 110,000 meals.
Wylie operated on a smaller scale but also worked quickly to put together their first-ever method of providing food outside the cafeterias.
“The food service department really stepped up and did a great job,” Light said. “We’ve been distributing 380 meals a day, and we had never done anything like that before.”
Accomplishing the never-before-been-done has been a theme for Abilene’s schools, as has the need to be light on the toes and ready for change. Administrators, parents, students and teachers learned new technology, adjusted to evolving expectations, and pushed forward in the face of uncertainty and disruption.
“I have been most impressed with our teachers who have come alongside the online learning and extended themselves in a wide variety of ways to support kids and families,” Young said. “We see teachers going way above and beyond the minimum. We have a kindergarten teacher who started her own YouTube channel and does a daily lesson. We have a teacher out on a farm, standing next to a donkey, reading [the book] “The Wonky Donkey” on video to her students.That’s above and beyond.”
“I asked principals, when this first started, to send me examples of unique things teachers are doing, so every day in the morning, I have things that come in overnight – pictures, descriptions – and it is a heart warming way to start my day. So many teachers are doing great things. But they’re exhausted. It will be the most exhausting end of school ever. There are people out there who think those teachers aren’t doing anything during this time. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
As the school year winds down, school leaders find themselves not only exhausted but still in the midst of planning for an unknown future as it remains unclear whether fall classes can safely take place inside school buildings and if so, what social distancing will look like in that setting. Plans are underway for a variety of scenarios: continued at-home learning, a return to traditional in-person classes, or some hybrid of the two. In addition, Young said there will be gaps in students’ learning from the last nine weeks of this school year that will need to be addressed, and they’ll have to be ready and flexible in case of a virus resurgence during the 2020-21 school year. But, he said the Abilene community can count on one thing that will remain consistent.
“We hope we’ll be back in August, but there may be restrictions in terms of what we can do. It’ll be different,” Young said. “But, know this: kids will be at the center of every decision we make, and we will support families in that effort.”
By Wendy Kilmer