Schools are back: How 3 superintendents are meeting challenges head-on

Despite occasional shifts to remote learning, robust supports have been key to keeping students on track in 2022.

(This is the second in a series of articles with three superintendents on the return to school in 2022.)

Dr. Jimmy Shaw

Up until two weeks ago, Florence City Schools in the northwest corner of Alabama had remained open for in-person education save for one day: Nov. 12, when it was forced into remote learning because of instructional shortages. As with most districts operating face-to-face this year, it was a remarkable feat.

“We had a massive amount of substitutes missing, and it wouldn’t have been a safe environment,” Florence City superintendent Dr. Jimmy Shaw said of that fateful day in November. “Our teachers have had mentally some bad days and were not feeling appreciated, but they’ve shown up every day. And we’ve tried to educate our kids.”

However, on Jan. 18, with COVID surging through the Florence City community at a near 50% positivity rate, it became unmanageable and unsafe to open schools. So Shaw and his team made the successful switch to virtual learning for one week. They have since returned, proving their determination, perseverance and patience despite the waves of variants. For schools like Florence City, providing kids with a place to learn and interact against all odds has been a testament to the work of worn-out educators, administrators and the abundance of supports they put in place.

But it has been challenging, to say the least, even for a district ranked among the top 6% in the nation. A mask mandate was lifted by Gov. Kay Ivey before the school year, learning loss remained evident from 2020 and student behaviors were all over the map. “Some of our kids are grateful beyond measure to be back in person, but we have seen different behaviors more than in past years; students not used to having structure after being out of a structured environment,” Shaw says. “We’re trying to fight through that. We’ve tried to put a lot of social-emotional pieces in place because our students are not OK.”

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One of those is the continuation of a partnership through the past decade with Riverbend Center for Mental Health that provides services directly to schools. The district also extended help to teachers and other staff, and it is in the process of training all teachers on mental health first aid and being a screener for every child.

“We really go out of our way to try to take care of the physical and emotional needs of our students,” Shaw says, noting the district’s diversity from the very wealthy to those that have virtually no income. “The wraparound services that we provide at every level, the financial support of our community, allows us to be able to do that. Our greatest strength is we really try to meet kids, where they are. We’re not perfect. We live to be able to help kids meet their successes of tomorrow while supporting them today.”

Fighting hard to stay open

Berkeley Heights Public Schools in New Jersey opened fully in-person to start the fall but had to revert back to half days of learning for students in order to open in 2022 because of widespread cases that forced many schools in the state to pivot to remote. Still, Superintendent Dr. Melissa Varley said that was better than having to send kids home with no face-to-face instruction or interaction.

Dr. Melissa Varley

“We’re all educators. We know that most children need in-person education, they need that connection with their teacher, and being in school is normal,” she says. “A teacher can’t tell in a Zoom block if a kid is truly paying attention. We thought they were doing OK, but based on our tests that we’re getting back, we know that some of them are struggling.”

While Florence City had to pivot to virtual on Jan. 18, Berkeley Heights returned to full days of instruction that day. It has been a roller-coaster ride this year, not just in the switch of modalities but in having to face the emotional divide from families over COVID-19 protocols. “We had people coming to board meetings and they’re against vaccines, they’re against masks, even if the child tests positive for COVID,” Varley says. “They don’t want their child to have to miss school. Everyone’s pretty darn angry, and I thought everyone would be so happy that the kids were back in school full-time.”

Varley reminded them that even during half days they were at least operating in person in some form. Now that they’ve fully come back, what would improve the experience in the future? “If our kids can be back without masks on,” she says. “Masks are inhibitors of social-emotional learning and mental health. The kids don’t see each other’s faces. So if we could get back to normal without the masks, I think it’d be a game-changer for the kids. And I’d love for people to be happy again.”

They may get their wish as omicron begins to slow. Gov. Phil Murphy hinted last week that he might remove the statewide mask mandate for schools.

A family approach for families

Dr. Stacy Johnson, superintendent at Banquete Independent School District in southeastern Texas, and her team have taken a number of measures this year to ensure students are learning and are safe. One of those is a color-coded system to keep families informed about the threats of COVID-19.

Dr. Stacy Johnson

“I recently tweeted, ‘We’re going back to yellow’ to let our parents know, if we’re on this color, here’s the things that are in place,” she says. “Because they know that in advance, there hasn’t been the pushback. And we’ve been very good at moving up and down on that color charts. And also looking at current situations and not saying, this is for the rest of the year. Every week, we evaluate the surrounding positivity rates. We look at attendance and staff attendance. That has allowed us to be open when we have had several districts near us that have had to close down for two weeks or delay openings.

“If you let them know there is an end in sight, and that it is dependent upon our specific community, they’re much more compliant and willing to continue with those protocols—the temperature-checking, the sanitizing and the disinfecting.”

As for trying to overcome learning loss, Banquete has looked to NWEA Map testing “so we can figure out exactly where our students are.” Johnson says she is anxious to get results back to see how much growth has been made.

There have been other significant changes this academic year—a cabinet formed to help decisions go more smoothly, especially with a new superintendent and two new principals among the three schools. They’ve achieved 1:1 devices for all students, which they take home every day. And they’ve implemented big safety measures such as temperature checks at every exit, disinfecting desks between periods and adding sanitizing and air-quality machines.

But the real reason they’ve remained open is camaraderie.

“We really are a family that works together,” Johnson says. “There was a lot that was new for the district—a new elementary principal, a new high school, a new curriculum. The willingness to come together and genuinely help each other succeed is one of the biggest blessings and surprises.”

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