The schools were among the last holdouts when sweeping COVID-19 mandates and executive orders were beginning across North Carolina and the U.S. But the order finally came down on March 14 that Lee County Schools would be closed for two weeks.
On March 23, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all schools in the state to remain closed through May 15, effectively wiping out two months of the school calendar.
Two months of learning. Two months of socializing with friends. Two months of a senior year of high school. And nobody is certain it will all end then.
While the situation isn’t as dire as the hits the nation’s health care and economy are taking at this time, the nation’s education system certainly ranks near the top in terms of institutions altered the most by the COVID-19 epidemic.
And the way K-12 public school districts, private schools, community colleges and universities in the area have responded to having their teachers’, support staff and students’ lives flipped upside down in such a short period of time has been nothing short of incredible.
Take Lee County Schools for example. In the first week following Cooper’s March 23 order, the district issued nearly 2,000 laptops for students in the third grade and up to bring home, sent out nearly 1,800 instructional packets to pre-K through second-grade students and prepared more than 11,000 meals served to children and their families that have relied on school meals for their daily nutritional needs during the school year.
On March 26 alone, the district reported it had connected with more than 11,800 students through online student-teacher interactions using Google Meet, Google Classroom and Canvas software. Guidance counselors and social workers have worked to remain in contact with students to check on their well-being and academic needs. The district has even launched WiFi hotspots at B.T. Bullock Elementary, Deep River Elementary, Greenwood Elementary, Bragg Street Academy and Warren Williams Elementary Alternative School so families can pull into those parking lots and access filtered internet access from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (and the district is looking to expand those locations). Teachers at several schools have even coordinated makeshift parades to wave and greet their students in their neighborhoods from a safe distance.
It’s a lot of work in a very short period of time. But Superintendent Andy Bryan says they’ve only begun adjusting to this new reality.
“Although a lot has been accomplished, there is more work to be done,” Bryan said in a letter to parents on March 28. “Our teachers are doing a great job conducting virtual classrooms. However, it is a transition that will take time to perfect and expand. Our teachers are working with each other to share ideas and improve instruction in a virtual world.”
For educators like Amy Braren, an eighth-grade science teacher at SanLee Middle School, the adjustments were sudden, life-changing and even emotional. Braren has gone from a hands-on, dedicated classroom instructor to a teacher who now video conferences with her students twice a week, assigning activities and mini-lessons, virtual field trips, video demonstrations and other assignments daily on her classroom page.
“I never thought in a million years that when we left school on March 13, that I would see my kids [in person] for another two months,” Braren said. “No one was expecting it then, especially our kids. Kids may say they don’t like school, but most really do. No seeing or interacting with my students has been the toughest part for me. Building relationships with our kids is a cornerstone of teaching. I’ve struggled with that, as well as the adjustments to video conferencing. I miss them tremendously, and it is the highlight of my week when I see them on my computer screen.”
Braren said she has received much-needed support from the school district, and she commended teachers across LCS for their work in gathering instructional materials for all grade levels (the materials are there to supplement the work that has been assigned. She said teachers have also been given the opportunity to attend technology training sessions to better learn their various online teaching platforms.
“I have been teaching for over 20 years, so I am not ‘great’ with the technology,” Braren said. “The first week was frustrating for me, but I am learning it and getting better at it with each assignment I give and each video lesson I teach. When I have questions, I rely on my fellow teachers and tech people, and we figure stuff out together. It’s just what teachers do — problem solving and teamwork.”
Taylor Waters, a fourth-grade teacher at B.T. Bullock Elementary School, knows all about problem solving and teamwork. Waters first video chatted with her students on March 17, just 48 hours after Cooper’s first executive order to close schools. Waters and her colleagues had a short time to flip their classes into an online format.
“It has taken a lot of communication, balancing, trial and error and lots and lots of learning,” Waters said. “I could not be prouder of my students and my colleagues for what we have accomplished in such a short time frame.”
Waters uses Google Classroom and Google Meet to speak “face to face” with her students, which she calls her favorite part of her day. She said she was, at first, devastated when the news came down that school would close for a few weeks (and eventually through May 15).
“I love my students, I love my co-workers, I love my school, [and] I love my job,” she said. “I worried about my students. Are they safe? Are they hungry? Are they happy? Those thoughts and concerns still bounce around in my head at this point, but so much more has happened since that first day. Our school system and community has come together in big ways to provide food for the students in our community. Our leaders have been so supportive, I could not be more thankful for my administrative team. There is so much good. So many helpers are making a difference in our students’ lives everyday, including their teachers.
“Not to mention, students are truly learning. They are learning academic content, 21st century skills, how to adapt, how to be flexible and that their teachers will show up for them, no matter what.”
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Many teachers have more than just a classroom of children to worry about. Many, like third-grade Tramway Elementary teacher Melanie Hawes, are juggling teaching their classes and making sure their own children are on top of their school work.
Hawes has a daughter in middle school and a son in pre-school. She has had the benefit of Tramway’s year-round schedule, which went into intersession on March 20 and isn’t scheduled to resume until April 13. Until then, Hawes is taking multiple training sessions online to learn platforms she’s unfamiliar with.
She’s catching on, but Hawes said the change has been more dramatic for her than perhaps some newer teachers in the district. She’s also aware that not all parents in the district are able to stay home with their children, and thus, many are spending their mornings and early afternoons in daycares.
“Many of my kids are in daycares during the day, so I feel I must be cognizant of this fact when I am planning meets and assigning daily material,” she said. “They will only be able to do assignments in the evenings and meet with me then, too. It is a huge adjustment for me and all of the families trying to juggle work, staying at home and school work.”
She worries for her students who don’t have access to books — especially those who don’t have internet access. But she’s approaching this upcoming month of virtual teaching with a “glass half full” mentality, and already, she’s seeing positives emerge from watching her own children learn in this unchartered environment.
“I am thankful to my daughter’s middle school teachers for keeping the learning going. I am thankful to my son’s preschool teacher for reading daily to her students and continuing to encourage the parents with ideas for keeping a preschooler engaged in learning activities,” she said. “For me and my students, I see this as a time to think out of the box and try new ways to reach students. It is a time of professional growth as many of us learn lots about technology and how we can best utilize it to reach students.”
Central Carolina Community College has also moved the majority of its courses online, and educators like social sciences lead instructor Bianka Stumpf have also had to adjust and adapt on the fly over the past few weeks.
“Even as I understand and embrace the necessity [of social distancing], as a teacher, I am still saddened not to have some of the on-campus experiences I had planned for my students in the coming weeks,” Stumpf said. “We had some history lessons that will be difficult to translate online even with video conferencing and others like a field trip to Temple Theatre that now cannot happen. Good teaching, though, always has an element of improvisation, too.”
Stumpf said the faculty at CCCC were mostly prepared for the online transition because many of their university transfer instructors, like her, have already either taught some of their courses online or at least used some online elements in their on-campus instruction. She said she has relied on Blackboard Collaborate for video conferencing, as well as text message reminders, email and phone calls to stay connected to her 125 students. These are all technologies, she said, that her students are very familiar with, too. And for those students who cannot access the internet from their homes, CCCC, like Lee County Schools, is establishing hot spots in the campus parking lots to help.
“Ultimately, what makes a teacher’s connection to a student is the personal relationship,” Stumpf added. “Since CCCC had to pause on-campus instruction, I first required students to reach out to me about a standing research project but also to answer how they are personally and academically, given all this uncertainty. I sought this response from them that I might be an encourager and connect my students to community and college resources.”
Stumpf said she has received calls, emails and texts from many of her students, many of them expressing anxiety about their courses, their employment and other missed opportunities. She has responded to all of those concerns — that role of “counselor” just as important as her role as educator.
“I have had several say that the best comfort has been this dialogue,” she said. “While I am not a Luddite by any means, instructional technology will only be as successful in the coming weeks as the teacher on his or her sofa using it is at communicating compassion, flexibility and enthusiasm.”
The changes have been difficult for teachers at all levels, but parents have also taken on the burden of coordinating their children’s online instruction time and making sure assignments are complete (and proofed). Many of those parents are also juggling full-time jobs, now working from home — and vice versa, many of those teachers are dealing with caring for their children at home while also trying to reach hundreds of students.
Lives have changed. But there’s comfort in knowing this won’t last forever. For Braren, the experience has made her appreciate the “little things” in life much more.
“Hopefully we won’t take these things for granted anymore — like education, teachers and many of the other things we have grown to miss over the past few weeks,” she said. “I just keep focusing on when all of this is over and how big of a celebration it will be. What joy we will all feel when we can finally be together again.”
— Billy Liggett
Visit Lee County Schools website at http://www.lee.k12.nc.us/ for updates from the superintendent, access to learning materials, locations for meal handouts and other information regarding COVID-19 and local education.
Visit cccc.edu for updates on online learning, announcements and other information regarding COVID-19 and secondary education.