Issuing paychecks and paying bills are two critical functions performed in business offices. Harris County Department of Education Assistant Superintendent of Finance Dr. Jesus Amezcua planned for the challenges of the pandemic early-on to make sure his staff could accomplish both of those fiscal responsibilities—and more. “A very important part of the process is the work our staff contributes daily to the successes of HCDE’s business office,” Amezcua said. Amezcua is beholden to his division’s unsung heroes for accomplishing the financial tasks which keep an organization running smoothly. One of those 22 employees is Marcia Leia. Her spring break holiday took a sudden twist after a visit to her husband on assignment there. While visiting during spring break in March, the pandemic spread, and Leia couldn’t leave Ecuador. She and her daughters stayed and are still there. Leia uses her HCDE laptop and internet access to accomplish daily journal entries, financial reports and budget items for her client Head Start. Teleworking for Business Services and Purchasing employees has meant securing the additional equipment needed to do business: laptops, printers, scanners, computer monitors and office supplies. Connectivity was another issue, Amezcua said. Some employees didn’t have internet access so hot spots were purchased. Zoom and Microsoft Teams accounts were set up for support meetings. Technology employee Andre Jumonville has been particularly helpful, said Amezcua. “We transitioned 98 percent of our work offsite by using our system and implementing various software packages such as Adobe Link, Teams and Zoom,” Amezcua said. “We identified a number of essential personnel who would come to work each Friday to process payroll and accounts payable checks. We started with eight staff out of 21 initially and then reduced it to four—two in accounting, one in payroll and one in accounts payable.” Staff working onsite are required to socially distance and wear masks. Sanitizers are used routinely. In addition, Facilities Division staff clean areas daily with approved, industrial disinfectant processes. Facilities also helps with routine mail delivery so that payments may be processed. Another huge project falling under the Business Services umbrella is the HCDE yearly budget and Financial Operation Guidelines training.  Those meetings have been accomplished online. “Documents were shared, and the entire process was converted to an electronic platform, and time and money was saved by this implementation,” Amezcua said. “This process as well as the electronic signatures of various documents will be maintained moving forward.” In fact, electronic files are now standard fare for Business Services. The pandemic has changed the way the Business Services and Purchasing divisions now conduct business, Amezcua explained. Operations within the Purchasing Division have changed as well. Adobe Link allows staff to submit credit card reports (P-Card) electronically. Credit limits have been stretched to allow for emergency purchasing for divisions needing to purchase additional telework equipment and other supplies.
“I am very proud on my staff,” Amezcua said. “They have adapted, and they have risen to the challenge. We continue to produce checks, payroll, contracts, purchase orders, financial statements, budget amendments, investment reports and agenda items as routine. Except now, they are all done electronically.”
Source: HCDE
As schools reopen, both children and adults may confront coronavirus anxieties. The Center for Safe and Secure Schools at Harris County Department of Education invites you to virtually attend a free webinar with national partner Scott Poland, Ed.D.: “School Re-entry After Covid-19: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Managing Anxiety and Promoting Social and Emotional Wellness.” Poland is a national school crisis team leader and president of the National Association of School Psychologists. The webinar is set for June 10, 1 p.m. CST through Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NSUPsychology.

Poland

The session focuses on helping school staff with potential anxieties about school resuming. It provides action steps for school administrators as they plan for reopening schools. Social distancing, face masks, school cleanliness and testing are important practices, but Poland’s presentation centers on helping staff and students face psychological challenges. For more information about school safety practices, contact the center’s director, Julia Andrews at jandrews@hcde-texas.org or http://www.hcde-texas.org/safe-and-secure-schools. Source: HCDE
Weather experts predict an active 2020 hurricane season, and the Center for Safe and Secure Schools urges the community to be prepared with an emergency kit and family communications plan. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the statistics support a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season, a 30 percent chance of a near-normal season and only a 10 percent chance of a below-normal season. Hurricane season runs from June 1-Nov. 30. “With families still following precautions for COVID-19, it’s hard to think about preparing for the possibility of a major tropical storm or hurricane in our area,” CSSS Director Julia Andrews said. “But we can be prepared with the resources already available to us.” Andrews recommends making plans to secure property and being ready with hurricane evacuation routes. “Also, it’s a good time to check your insurance for flood coverage,” she said. Below is a list of resources to rely upon when planning for the 2020 hurricane season:
  1. Build a hurricane kit: https://www.ready.gov/kit
  2. Make a family communications plan: https://www.ready.gov/plan
  3. Red Cross safety checklists: https://rdcrss.org/3ctb2XW
  4. Red Cross emergency app: https://bit.ly/3dxYVdj
  5. Protection from coronavirus (CDC): https://bit.ly/2MtLgbg and the Red Cross at redcross.org/coronavirus.
(The Center was created in 1999 at the request of Harris County superintendents and is tasked with the mission of supporting school districts’ efforts to have safe and secure learning environments. For more school safety resources, go to http://www.hcde-texas.org/safe-and-secure .) Source: HCDE
Summer learning expert Dr. Lisa Caruthers concedes that traditional summer learning loss experienced by students will be amplified by COVID-19 learning lag. Other family issues come into play as summer 2020 approaches and the coronavirus continues to be a threat. “Families are returning to work, and many cannot find summer care for their kids,” Caruthers said. “Kids are stressed from being at home with virtual learning duties without opportunities to play and engage with other children.” Caruthers heads the Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment for Kids, or CASE for Kids, a division of Harris County Department of Education. CASE for Kids provides resources, trainings and funding for afterschool programs, serving students in grades pre-k through 12 in afterschool programs in schools, childcare facilities and community centers throughout Harris County. As director, Caruthers is also a national presenter and proponent for out-of-school time and summer enrichment for children. Summer learning loss, or “brain drain,” requires at least three weeks of re-teaching last year’s lessons. However, learning loss due to COVID-19 adds more sludge into the learning loss equation. During summer months, research supports that most students lose two months of math skills, and low-income students lose another two-to-three months in reading progress. “This summer parents are anxious about enrolling their kids in enrichment camps due to concerns about the spread of the virus,” Caruthers said. “If they are staying at home, there is the issue of finding the right virtual camps and activities.” Caruthers says it’s possible to find the right combination so that parents and children feel comfortable this summer.
“It’s a balance of using project-based learning such as hobbies like art and music in combination with virtual learning to maintain a balance while being home-bound,” she said. “During summer it’s important to pair academics with activities which help students create hobbies and potential career interests,” Caruthers said.
A recent study by Big Brothers Big Sisters reveals that the social and emotional well-being of children is critical to consider. Four in 10 youth polled reported depressive symptoms that health experts regard as moderate (27 percent) or severe (13 percent). Such feelings are especially common for girls, with one in two meeting one of these thresholds. Depressive symptoms are significantly less common when youth report a relatively high degree of support from a special person in their life. Parents, too, are taxed both emotionally, mentally and physically as they create a balance between work and home. Caruthers, a mother of two children under age 10, fully understands the challenges. There are several things she says parents can do to support learning during summer and slow the learning loss, Caruthers says:
  • Identify your child’s interest in books and find books to feed it.
  • Prime the mental pump. Museums are offering online options. Mix educational apps in with games your kids play. Create a list of educational YouTube videos. Talk about the videos later.
  • Add incentives to your child’s learning with quality family time. After academic assignments, play a game as a family. Cook a favorite meal together. Make a wish list of places your child wants to visit this summer.
For summer learning resources, visit the CASE for Kids website and resource list: http://hcde-texas.org/after-school and http://hcde-texas.org/media/uploads/2020/04/CC-COVID-19-Resource-List-1.pdf Source: HCDE
Mural artist Anat Ronen and Harris County Department of Education Principal Dr. Victor Keys share pride and a sense of accomplishment as they view the muraled sensory room at Academic and Behavior School West. The room is a cool, colorful, artistic, under-the-sea playground filled with flora and fauna. The pandemic gave the unlikely pair the perfect space and time to collaborate on the project. View photo gallery View video The 20-by-25, square-foot room is now a place where children with autism and behavior disorders can go to decompress and connect with friendly sea creatures: a giant thoughtful turtle, curious zebra fish, an smart octopus, a smiling shark, inconspicuous stingrays and more. “Wherever you go is a story,” Ronen said, spinning around with a 360 view of the room with the underwater view. “I do murals, and I cater to the location and its needs.” Originally Ronen had a one-week deadline to complete the artwork in the sensory room, an umbrella term used to talk about a therapeutic safe space used for therapy for children with limited communication skills. When the pandemic hit, Ronen decided to stretch the project to two weeks to tell the underwater story. The challenge was to come up with a fish tank which was not repetitive. The panoramic view of the room tells a complete visual aquatic story. “I hope this room brings these students peace and joy and that they concoct all kinds of stories in their heads,” the artist said. “This will be their own room to have fun and relax in.” Keys is looking forward to the day when his students with intellectual, developmental and behavioral needs experience the sensory room at the new school. “It’s breathtaking,” he said, pointing to his favorite wall with a string of sting rays. “This is something that is magnificent.” Within the sensory room, sound systems and visuals will add to the calming experience. Plans include using the room for physical and music therapy. “This room will give out students a chance to calm down and refocus their attention,” he said. “We’ll also use experience as a behavior reinforcement.” Ronen, 49, is a self-taught artist who moved to Houston from Israel with her husband 13 years ago. Keys is amazed at the processes the artist used to create the sensory room with acrylic and water-based house paint. A wall projector allowed the artist to bring the Google-referenced likenesses of the sea creatures into the room. They soon took on their own personas. The turtle is the cornerstone of where the story began. “Once I complete a section, I have a key for the rest of the room,” Ronen said. Mr. Turtle is Ronen’s favorite character in the sensory room because she associates his slow, thoughtful moves with her own. Keys favors the stingray because he is always looking and watching, much like a principal. “The next thing you know, he comes out of nowhere,” Keys said, laughing at the commonalities. The students who will use the room can be likened to the sea creatures: each is unique, individual and beautiful unto themselves.
“I was on a mission to make things right,” Ronen said, checking the room over for a last time. “And it felt good to know this room is for kids.”
(Approximately 150 students ages 5-22 from Alief, Houston and other surrounding school districts will attend ABS West in southwest Houston at 12772 Medfield Drive, through contracted services with their districts. Sections of the school accommodate life skills students with intellectual disabilities, adaptive behavior students and students on the autism spectrum. Hallmark features of the school include the sensory room, a playground for children with disabilities and rounded-corner rooms for safety and accessibility.) Source: HCDE
During COVID-19, more school districts and municipalities are seeking digital solutions for record keeping. The steady flow of requests keeps six digital record keepers busy at Harris County Department of Education’s Records Management Division. Fifty-four customers mean being responsible for storage of 625,000 hard copies and 4,000 microfilm records. HCDE’s spacious records warehouse at 6005 Westview at North Post Oak accommodates the information. Records range from student transcripts to employee personnel files to other legal documents. It’s business as usual during the pandemic as HCDE Records Management staff work two days a week onsite and three days a week at home. “COVID will change our business model tremendously,” HCDE Records Management Director Curtis Davis said. “With all current and new customers, we will insist on digitizing daily use records. We have the software to help customers through our secure, work-at-home technology.” Services from the 20-year-old Records Management Division continue to evolve to meet the needs of clients. In addition to time spent with hard copy storage and digital scanning, meetings have gone virtual with Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Document shredding and strict record security measures ensure customer confidentiality and customer web training continues to thrive. Additionally, the Records Management staff members ensure that administrative matters are answered promptly. A large digital project with the City of Houston HR Benefits recently required 1.7 million pages to be processed. The job took 10 months to complete as staff meticulously scanned 701 document boxes. Several scanners help Records Management complete high-volume jobs: a Canon DR-G1130 image formula scanner for regular copies and a Contex HD Ultra for large construction maps. Microfiche and microfilm are converted with the E-Image microfilm scanner. The process of scanning or digitizing is not that tedious, but it is precise, says Davis. Document security is paramount. When being digitized, all documents are checked for cleanliness, and then they are scanned. For quality control, pages are reviewed for clarity. Each capture of information is identified. To complete the process, a CD is sent to the customer. Although most customers are moving to digital record-keeping, some customers retain hard copies and microfilm storage. Davis urges clients to think about pandemics, natural disasters and other emergencies that make digital copies more convenient and safer. “Think about how many times you looked for that one paper you needed right away and could not find,” Davis said. “I know I would like to see all my records without going to storage and find a box. “As we face the new normal, I think we will rely on digital records more than ever.” For more information about Records Management Division services, go to https://hcde-texas.org/records-management or email cdavis@hcde-texas.org. Source: HCDE
On an ordinary workday at the end of January 2020, news came about a Harris County Department of Education employee’s family member being exposed to COVID-19. After quarantining, the person tested negative, but the virus had hit too close to home. HCDE’s IT Services Division team was already ahead of the curve to equip staff to work remotely. Director Lowell Ballard, operations manager Chris Hoesel, applications manager Tim Davis, service desk manager Jaime Salinas and information security officer John Kracht began discussions as more cases of the virus showed up throughout the country. Working silently behind the scenes, the IT team and its staff planned the wraparound technology needed in the event staff couldn’t return to work after spring break. Behind the scenes, division leader Ballard and his management staff knew they had already built the framework to empower employees and students to work and learn from home. Ballard worked on a pandemic planning committee in a leadership post in Virginia 14 years previous, so he was aware of the IT services needed to get through a potential pandemic. To prepare before spring break, all employee accounts were enabled to allow VPN access and support to telework. Microsoft Office 365 was launched the year before, and a bulk of divisions already had documents migrated to One Drive in the Cloud. IT staff and several other divisions had already begun using Microsoft Teams for meetings. Student accounts were created and were being tested. Teams classroom sites were being tested for students as well. Finally, all employees were given access to Adobe services. Adobe Sign was enabled for testing for a small group of HCDE leaders. The next week, all hell broke loose as Texas and Harris County went into lockdown. Spring break was extended a week for staff, but IT staff kicked it into high gear.
“Like any disaster, you plan for it but you’re not sure it will happen,” said Ballard. “We are using the same platforms that Fortune 500 companies are using, so that gives us options and flexibility that may not have been available in the past.
Initially, the Service Desk was challenged with work hours without boundaries. Salinas recalled his team members fielding calls well into the evening to equip HCDE staff. “Our staff members were working through their personal situations, so they had odd hours themselves,” he said. “Staff had their own children at home in addition to their students to take care of.” Salinas ordered laptops which were already in high demand throughout the nation. To accommodate HCDE staff, laptops were taken from computer labs in the conference center. Service desk staff handed out approximately 80 laptops to enable staff to work from home. Davis and his team worked with the Schools Division to move student accounts and Microsoft Teams for classroom use from testing into production.  They edited all HCDE forms on the portal to be fillable using Adobe Sign and created a central forms library. Teachers were equipped to communicate with students. Now approximately 100 HCDE teachers and 650 students have access to Microsoft Teams collaboration software for use in their remote classrooms, mirroring the same software being used by HISD teachers. Several weeks post spring break, demand seemed to slow as employees settled into the new norm of working from home. “In the beginning, the call volume was extremely high with double the calls and now it has leveled off,” Salinas said. IT Services moved from crisis mode to the more routine as management meetings shifted from once a day to twice a week. IT Services teams now meet three times a week. Being prepared and working ahead of the curve is something IT personnel must do to help an organization thrive. “It’s an iterative or incremental process,” said Hoesel. “You can’t do everything at once. We’ve been making changes over the last one-and-a-half years and it’s enabled us to help staff work at this level during the pandemic. “Lowell had this vision for strategic change,” Hoesel said. “We used to think that everything is working, so why change. Now we’re going in the direction of where industry is moving.” IT Services staff members continue to work through challenges and make plans. Here are some future initiatives: • Upgraded phone system will allow employees to call using their work phone caller ID on their smart phone via an app. “Effectively, their smart phone may be used like a work desk phone,” Ballard said. “A second phase is planned that allows calls to be sent/received using Microsoft Teams. • Connect online forms to systems and workflows. “We won’t need to include paper documents floating around the workplace.” Davis said. “Moving away from paper, making forms fillable and being able to be signed is what made administrative processes keep functioning,” Ballard said.  “The next phase is connecting the data collected by online forms into integrated workflows and systems so that processes run faster and people don’t need to re-enter data collected from the forms into other systems.” • Computer security during COVID-19 is heightened. A significant increase in  phishing attempts has occurred during the coronavirus. Kracht is moving forward with employee education initiatives; enhanced “multi-factor authentication” settings and coronavirus-related phishing prevention as threats increase. Source: HCDE
School safety has a formidable intruder with the invasion of COVID-19, and no one is more aware of that fact than Julia Andrews, director for Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools. The Center was created in 1999 at the request of Harris County superintendents and is tasked with the mission of supporting school districts’ efforts to have safe and secure learning environments. The Center is in contact several days a week with emergency operations leaders from approximately 25 school districts and six charter schools within greater Harris County. The meetings allow for sharing best practices and strategies in emergency operation planning and security. The pandemic is the new, formidable enemy that continues to spread uncertainty through area school districts and beyond. “We are very busy sharing COVID-19 updates and recommendations via emails and newsletters and have been contacted by several school districts to do virtual professional development as well,” Andrews said. Recently the Center hosted an operations meeting which included the Texas School Safety Center officials who shared a draft of what reopening schools in Texas might look like. In that meeting, Rich Vela, executive director HCDE Facilities, led a discussion on cleaning and disinfecting school classrooms and buildings. Several districts called for follow up on procedures and products. Members were referred to HCDE’s Choice Partners co-op for easy access to cleaning supplies and food products.
“We’re using all the resources we have to help school districts,” said Andrews.
This week the Texas Education Agency submitted adoptive recommendations and models for reopening schools. Ideas are flowing down the back-to-school pipeline. “We have a lot of things to think about as when we open schools back up,” said Andrews. “When we do, we must foremost protect both our students and our staff.” Requests for assistance run the gamut. Staff are concerned about not being about to locate missing students. Educators need guidance on how to effectively communicate with parents from home. Parents need resources for their children sheltering in place at home. “We also need to be aware of identifying and checking on students who may be suffering from abuse,” said Andrews. “School was their outlet for normalcy, and many are home suffering.” The Center provides a resource guide on its website to address physical and mental health, as well as education resources: https://hcde-texas.org/safe-and-secure-schools/culture-climate/ (For more about the Center, go to http://www.hcde-texas.org/safe-and-secure-schools.) Source: HCDE
Harris County Department of Education is recruiting college graduates for a fast-track, alternative certification program which has a proven track record for success. Online and onsite classes make the program convenient, and flexible payment plans provide affordability. Small classes allow students to gain experience from veteran educators who operate the program. Teacher candidates gain jobs after the first five to 10 months of intensive training, and HCDE assists with job placement opportunities. “Our program is built around an extensive network of support to ensure our teachers are prepared to step into the classroom ready to teach from day one,” said Lidia Zatopek, director for Educator Certification and Advancement. “Our one-on-one and small group onsite training is complimented by online support and resources.”
“Teaching is a very stable and rewarding career, and teacher salaries have been on the rise in recent years,” said Zatopek.
Eligible areas of certification provided by HCDE are core subject areas for grades pre-k through 12, including elementary Core Subjects EC-6, secondary math, science, and English, as well as special education, English as a second language and bilingual education. Teachers receive support and professional development from the program even after they are certified. Teachers gain jobs in school districts throughout Harris County and beyond through the program which has produced award-winning teachers for the past 10 years. For the past three years, HCDE teacher preparation program supports a 100 percent pass rate as interns complete the state teacher certification exams. In addition, 100 percent of interns gain full certification credentials within two years.  References from teachers completing the program are available upon request. For more information about upcoming enrollment in the program, email hcdeacp@hcde-texas.org Source: HCDE
As the manufacturer of hand sanitizer and distributor of industrial disinfectants, Choice Partners vendor Buckeye Cleaning is operating on a 24/7 schedule. During the past six weeks, the company sold 20,000 cases of hand sanitizer, 8,000 dispensers on stands and is currently manufacturing 10,000 cases for the Houston market. President Reagan Lapoint of Buckeye International in Houston has this piece of advice for institutions looking for disinfectants and cleaning supplies: “Use your co-op.” “Hand sanitizer will be in every building you go into from here on out,” said Lapoint. “The co-op has guaranteed pricing. You lock the pricing in, and we must honor that pricing. The co-op is made for times like this.” Choice Partners Director Jeff Drury says Buckeye has been a vendor with Choice for 18 years. Both small and large school districts and institutions benefit from buying through Choice’s legal procurement and contract solutions to meet government purchasing requirements for its approximate 2,000 members. The 624 vendors benefit too from a loyal client base. About 72 percent of Buckeye’s business comes from Choice member orders, and COVID-19 has escalated demand for the company’s three-tiered approach for industrial cleaning.

Drury and Lapoint

Since mid-March, the 16-member team at Choice has operated in high gear, organizing a list of vendors who provide COVID-19 products and services to members. A marketing survey was sent to vendors with approximately 80 responses for available products/services from cleaning supplies to food to technology to facilities: https://www.choicepartners.org/covid-19 . Like many companies, Choice Partners has moved from face-to-face customer service through avenues like conferences, trade shows, trainings and person-to-person sales calls to Microsoft Teams meetings, Zoom trainings and phone calls. “We are so people oriented and there is nothing like face-to-face interactions, but we have adapted with technology,” Drury said. A “Virtual Vendor Orientation” is scheduled for May 12 and targets Choice Partners’ new vendors and provides updates for current vendors. Topics and issues range from the legal and competitive aspect of Choice Partners cooperative contracts to supply catalog vendors to job-order contracting.
“We want to make sure our new vendors gain clarity and understanding in an orientation and understand what we have to offer, from marketing to excellent customer service,” Drury said.
Although many food contractors and office vendor companies are suffering through the loss of school district demands during COVID-19, Drury points to companies like Buckeye which are meeting new supply-and-demands of institutions during the pandemic. “We are continuing to see interest in products and services from the co-op,” Drury said. “Both companies and institutions are tasked with reducing the spread of COVID through taking on the responsibility of social distancing and bringing many innovative ideas to the table.” Learn more about Choice Partners at http://www.choicepartners.org. Source: HCDE