One year of COVID-19: Schools, businesses, community adapts to evolving pandemic

Life was very different one year ago, in Elgin, much like the rest of central Texas. Suddenly, in-person school was canceled, events were postponed indefinitely and most businesses either changed their operations or temporarily closed their doors to try and help halt the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

One year later, the Elgin community is still adapting to the pandemic and overcoming new obstacles.

At the beginning of the pandemic, information and guidance changed almost day to day as doctors and scientists learned more and more about the new virus, said Matthew West, Elgin ISD’s director of safety and risk management. Eventually, Elgin ISD was able to settle on its processes as the best practices to handle the virus became more settled.

“We were having to roll with whatever information was available at that time, and that made it somewhat difficult for us trying to standardize our practices,” West said. “We got into a set protocol and procedures on how we were handling things, and that made the operations run a lot smoother.”

Switching to remote learning has been a big shift for Elgin ISD, but as time went on, teachers were trained to present online courses, and students became more used to learning online.

“When we went all remote in March of last year, it was kind of an odd feeling to be running a school district from your house,” West said. “The masks and the social distancing has become the new normal: making sure everybody’s separated at lunchtime and recess. That was difficult at first, especially in elementary schools, just because of kids being kids.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Elgin area had some of the highest numbers of cases in Bastrop County; however, the numbers for Elgin ISD have remained low compared to other school districts, West said.

“I really have to credit our entire community and school district, because without their support, we would have a very difficult time managing COVID-19 cases,” he said. “I think the reason why they’ve been relatively low, is because of the community, because parents are supportive of what we’re trying to do.”

Jens Anderson, athletic director at Elgin ISD, said the biggest challenge of the pandemic was having to stay apart, instead of physically coming together, when a tragedy such as COVID-19 occurs, especially for athletes who have a team mindset.

“Instead of trying to do everything we can to bring our kids together and spend more time with one another, we actually are in this paradox where we have to build team unity, but also are trying to limit interactions,” Anderson said. “A lot of the bonding with coaches and players and teams is done before and after practice. With COVID, we had to regulate how many kids we had in the locker room at one time … and that really cuts into those great experiences that many of us remember from our high school years of building those relationships.”

The processes of dealing with the COVID-19 virus have become a lot more familiar to everyone than in the beginning of the pandemic, and the Elgin ISD athletics department’s current procedures are similar to those from most of the year, Anderson said.
Anderson said they are excited that Elgin’s athletic teams have been able to finish their seasons during the pandemic.

“A year ago, we were going into spring break, and we thought we’re gonna have an extra week off maybe, and it ended up being several months,” he said. “(On Friday), we have a group of young men headed off to regional powerlifting, and the same day last year, we were telling them they were not going to be able to go. For those kids to have those options, it’s made all of the extra time and the extra precautions worth it.”

Between the beginning of the pandemic and now, teachers have become skilled at making their recorded lessons as engaging and interactive as possible for their students, according to Dr. Shannon Luis, assistant superintendent for academics and school improvement at Elgin ISD.

“While we know the best place for students to receive instruction is in-person from teachers, we have made great strides in the virtual instruction being provided,” Luis said.

The biggest challenge with learning during the pandemic, according to Luis, was that not all students are successful with remote learning, and keeping students as engaged as they would be in-person has been a challenge as well.

“We know this has been challenging for families as well,” Luis said. “The use of the technology is new to a lot of families so a lot of support was needed at the beginning of the school year. We are definitely more stabilized now than we were at the start of the school year, and that is thanks to our teachers, principals, and families.”

Elgin ISD is making adjustments to its summer school offerings to address the learning loss that students will have experienced due to COVID-19, Luis said.

“We will continue to make adjustments into next school year to do everything we can to ensure we get each and every student back on track,” she said. “We also know this will take time.”

During the pandemic, the City of Elgin and Elgin’s business community has had to adapt, as well.

Elgin community services director Amy Miller was designated as the city’s public information officer at the beginning of the pandemic in Elgin, and for the first month, worked to provide all the latest information about COVID-19. As the pandemic continued, she went on to help businesses get the word out about their modified operations and be aware of grants and programs such as the Payroll Protection Program. They also worked with businesses with technical training and helped them use tools such as social media to promote their business during the pandemic.

“At different times, there was greater amounts of information that needed to be distributed,” Miller said. “Now, of course, the focus for a couple months has been on helping educate people about the need to register for the vaccine and how to access the vaccine. … We are trying, through the city’s platform, to continue helping to educate the community about what’s available and how to access that.”

Elgin has weathered the pandemic very well, Miller said, and cited the support of the local community.

“Elgin has had a fantastic attitude about this as a community,” she said. “There were so many reminders that we’re all in this together, that we’re stronger together, but I do feel like this community really supported each other, and that we’re in better shape today because of that.”

In early March last year, the Elgin Chamber of Commerce held their annual awards banquet and was looking forward to its next year; then, COVID-19 hit and affected the chamber and businesses.

“The good news, as we look back now, I think the businesses in our community really were resilient, and took a lot of efforts to adapt,” said Gena Carter, president of the Elgin Chamber of Commerce. “They pivoted their business plan and did what they needed to do to survive, everything from the curbside pickup to having a bigger online presence, changing the way they do business.”

During the pandemic, the chamber has been working to direct businesses to resources, Carter said, such as grants, loans and the Paycheck Protection Program. During the most recent round, over 200 businesses received funds from that program.

The pandemic presented different challenges to different kinds of businesses, Carter said. Small retailers faced challenges when people were not getting out to go shopping, some businesses did not have a strong online presence before the pandemic, and some restaurants struggled with capacity limitations. On the other hand, other businesses had plenty of business, but may have had to hire more people.

Going forward, the chamber is looking forward to hosting events again and is encouraging people to get vaccinated.

“I’m proud of our citizens for continuing to shop local and supporting our local businesses and wearing their masks and being supportive in general,” Carter said. “All in all, it’s been a tough year, obviously, but a lot of good has come out of it as well, where we’ve seen people have been able to work together.”

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