I know it is safe to say that no town has the support we have in the Panther Nation. That could not be more evident than at our annual kickoff convocation for our teachers and staff that was held at our new Lufkin High School Panther Gym, a facility approved by this generous community in a bond election in 2018. Please take the opportunity to come to a volleyball game to see this fabulous facility. You will not be disappointed.Each year, the businesses of this town give door prizes, sponsor T-shirts and set up vendor tables to show their love and support of our staff and teachers. The theme this year is Together We Rise. We know we cannot educate the children of this community alone. We are all in this together, and yes, Lufkin ISD will rise to meet any challenge.

As I said to our employees at convocation, I know there are concerns about what this school year will bring. I am concerned as well, however; one cannot help but acknowledge all that we have been through the last 19 months. In that time, we learned many lessons about ourselves and school in general.

Even though there were a wide range of adjectives to describe last school year — trying, surprising, challenging, thought provoking, hard, long, tiring, bittersweet, affirming and successful (yes, I consider it a success) — we came through that time as a better team. We learned lessons that will help us tackle any situation. We also learned COVID-19 exposure and infections did not originate at the school, rather the school was dealing with what came through our doors. We had very little school-to-school transmission of this disease.

We gained valuable experiences and protocols to deal with COVID-19. We followed them and they worked. Some of our tools to deal with COVID have been removed by the Legislature and the governor, like mask mandates, virtual learning and having an attendance-hold-harmless approach to deal with lower student attendance. Federally the financial support for COVID absences has been removed.

The removal of all of those tools and supports will make dealing with this disease more difficult. So we will implement what we can control. I will admit a very unpopular likelihood: If given the permission to mandate masks again, I would. It was one of the single mitigating factors that protected us last year, even though I hated every moment of it.

We have activated our online COVID dashboard, we will monitor our status and the status of our community, we will suggest and recommend masks, we will limit visitors to the campus, we will protect our students by distancing as we can and we will prepare to meet any challenge.

Yes, you will hear us mention many times about vaccinations. This year we have the knowledge that vaccinations will make a difference in the severity of this virus. We will continue to hold vaccination clinics in order to provide our staff and our students with what we know is the best and only protection from this virus.

Despite the difficulty of the work, the challenges ahead, I cannot think of a better place to be, a better group of people to guide our students, or a better team to accomplish this work. Together We Will Rise to meet any challenge.