Communication has been key for local schools that have had to navigate education during the COVID-19 pandemic, area school superintendents said today during a virtual WilmingtonBiz Expo roundtable.
School superintendents Charles Foust, of New Hanover County Schools, Steven Hill, of Pender County Schools and Jerry Oates, of Brunswick County Schools, discussed what it's been like to make school reopening plans during the pandemic and what is next for students, parents and faculty.
When it comes to how each superintendent made individual recommendations, all three said they were guided by discussions they routinely have with health officials.
“We stay in constant contact with our health officials here in Brunswick County and we communicate pretty much daily looking at the metrics on infection spread, the rate of infection, those types of things that are happening within Brunswick County,” Oates said about the school district’s current remote and in-person school model and decision to allow K-5th grade students to go back to fulltime, in-person learning on Oct. 5.
“In speaking with our health director, we saw that we have substantially decreased in the number of positive cases, particularly since where we were earlier this summer. So that was definitely encouraging,” Oates added.
Hill said his school district, which has been operating under a mix of in-person and remote learning throughout the week, meets with Pender County health officials every morning and also considers feedback from family and staff surveys.
“We've actually developed a shared database where our input goes in, their [health officials] response comes in and it updates on a dashboard every five minutes,” Hill said. “So, what we're doing is looking at that carefully.”
New Hanover County Schools is continuously having conversations with health officials, Foust said.
“We have a committee that actually meets with them [health officials] on a regular basis and then bring that to the board and that's how we came [up] with our decision,” Foust said.
Currently, New Hanover County Schools is operating remotely. The New Hanover County School board decided to transition schools to a plan B consisting of two groups that go to in-person learning for two days out of the week and the rest of the days remotely. This new model of schooling for the county begins Oct.12.
Initially, the New Hanover County School Board voted to transition schools to plan B consisting of three groups rotating from one week in-person and two weeks of remote learning. Six days later, the board approved the new model as opposed to the three-week rotation.
Foust said the district’s quick switch happened because the board wanted to ensure safety and look at different instruction models.
“We sat down back at the table and we said, ‘Okay, we think we can offer instead of having three groups, we can go to two groups and what would two groups look like?'” Foust said. “We are getting more face time with students versus the times that we were given with the one week in and the two weeks out.”
With the winter cold and flu season coming soon, area schools are open to changes in the current plan and will consider going back to a full-time remote learning model if the numbers call for it, the superintendents said.
“If our health officials give us information that will that makes us have to reevaluate some things, I think that we will be able to do that,” Oates said. “One of the goals of all of these plans, A, B and C, if you remember, was to be able to move fluidly through each one, if the need arose for that.”
Oates said that this fluidity includes the school’s decision to allow parents and students to move through schooling plans, including from remote learning to face-to-face instruction, as their home and work situations change.
“Sometimes you don't know what you don't know, and every day is going to be a different story,” Hill said about planning for the future in Pender county. “We've never taught like this before in history and every day is an evaluation.”
Other difficult items to navigate for schools has been staff and faculty availability, including the fact that some teachers may have to quarantine and many substitute teachers who may be in the vulnerable age demographic for COVID-19, are choosing not to work to not be potentially exposed to the virus, superintendents said.
While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly provided a challenge for schools, teachers, faculty, parents, and staff, there are some silver linings.
“What has been evident for us is, and it kind of just reinforces what we knew to begin with, was the compassion and the dedication that our teachers have to provide quality education for the students,” Oates said. “Even in the midst of COVID, the dedication has not wavered.”
Both Foust and Hill agreed that the pandemic allowed schools to learn about the possibilities that remote learning can provide.
“With this virtual learning, we've learned a new way of teaching students,” Foust said. “I think those are some things that we can take back for conversation. If someone is not able to come to school, can they actually now use a virtual platform.”
It also provides possibilities for remote learning during storms and ways to expand internet access and infrastructure needed to support technology.
“This has expediated our research as far as how we can serve people,” Hill said. “You think hurricane here, you think ice, you think things like that, maybe we don't have shutdown anymore.”