Last week, leaders from Sampson County Schools were faced with challenges of operating the district without students in classroom because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Now, a two-week shutdown will stretch to at least nine weeks.
A board meeting was held Monday at the Central Office through the Zoom Video Communications to be compliant with rules about being 6 feet apart and having less than 10 people in one space. During that time, board members addressed concerns regarding teachers and meal distributions.
After North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper ordered schools to be closed for two weeks starting March 16, he extended the closure date on Monday to May 15, with more COVID-19 cases popping up throughout the state. The decision was made based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. District officials are expected to announce new plans in the coming days.
Board chair Kim Schmidlin made a statement about how the school year is still in session, although students are not in classrooms.
“The opportunities to learn the standard course of study are still available,” Schmidlin said.
“Sampson County Schools remains open for business,” she said. “The business of feeding and educating our students.”
For the past week, Schmidlin, Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy and Dr. Linda Jewell Carr, assistant superintendent of instructional services, spent time discussing how the district spent time rising to the challenges. Schmidlin said it includes making sure students make progress through the curriculum, embracing technology in a new way, and adapting to a new normal in educating students.
“We are realistic about what lies ahead and we are actively planning to keep the ball moving down the field for every child,” Schmidlin said. “Now, I’d like to emphasize the importance of our students, parents, and caregivers understanding that we are not out on summer break. If we don’t all work together to do our part to embrace this situation, our students will suffer. Please do not check out. Stay engaged.”
Schmidlin also encouraged parents to stay engaged with their teachers, guidance counselors, and other resources in the community.
“Together we can meet the challenges so that when our students come back – whether that is late May or August, they are ready to pick right back up,” she said.
Sonya Powell, board member, said she received concerns about the lack of paper and ink for printers and copies. Powell said principals have held employees accountable for how much is used and if that could be done away with.
“We have so many people in our county who are not going to be able to be online,” Powell said. “They are going to have to make those print copies for those kids to last them until now and at least May 15.”
She requested that if there’s any ink and paper sitting in closets, teachers should have access to it. Stephen Britt, chief finance officer, said this school year is the first time the district took over all copier costs for buildings. The school system is preparing to make a massive order for paper. Carr added that money was saved from not using spring tutorial programs and will go towards funding for the paper. Title I schools, which would have spent money on tutors have an excessive amount of money that could be used for paper as well.
“I don’t think there will be a single sheet not purchased that the teachers would like to see printed,” Carr said. “But I also have been working with the curriculum team to ensure that we have some consistency across schools and that we don’t create additional anxieties by sending home two hundred and fifty sheets every two weeks for a child because that would create a lot of anxieties at home if they get too much paper at home.”
Tim Register, board member, said it’s very important for teachers to understand that district is going to do whatever it can to provide materials to them. He later thanked Bracy and other school leaders for implementing information for the public.
“I think you have done a great job to try to get our teachers accommodated and our students served,” Register said.
Echoing Schmidlin, Register hopes everybody knows that the mission of the school district is to deliver the curriculum through district leadership.
“I would hope that we are stepping in and giving some direction to what we want to go home,” he said. “If every teacher jumps in and says ‘this is what I want to do’ then we may have an onslaught of copies. But I think somewhere along the line, the instructional staff needs to meet with principals and school team leaders and whoever needs to be involved to decide “this is how we going to attack this.’”
Register continued and talked about how pacing guides, goals, objects and indicators are important for the learning process at every school. He added that parents and guardians should know what the schools are covering.
“I would like to see us develop a pointed plan of how we intend to cover the goals and objectives that are left this year,” he said. “Sometimes, a hard situation presents an opportunity. I know this strange. It’s going to be hard for teachers. It’s going to be hard for students. It’s going to be hard for everybody.
“But the truth of the matter is, the last few weeks of schools are focused on nothing but reviewing for the End-of-Grade tests,” he said. “Well, that’s out of the way, so all those days that would have spent reviewing for the tests become instructional days again for us to try to continue to teach those objectives. I’m kind of getting on my soapbox, but I want us, rather than just letting it go on, every which way, to try to bring some focus to what’s going to take place based on those goals and objectives that still need to be covered by our students.”
Carr said the district is working on the plan and Schmidlin said students are completing the second week of review this week. New material is expected to be delivered next week. The district also set up a drive-through service for parents to pick up meals for their children.
With the current system, the district is serving between 1,000 and 2,000 meals per day at several sites in Sampson County. Register asked if a delivery system could be implemented instead of the pickup system. He said it provides several purposes by giving additional employment opportunities for bus drivers to run limited routes and to deliver instructional materials. It’s unknown, how many of the meal recipients are associated with Sampson Schools. Register said there’s 8,000 students who qualify for free lunch and was concerned that every student wasn’t receiving a meal.
“Yeah, we’ve done a good job, but I think that can still go up if we look at other alternatives,” Register said. “Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of kids sitting at home who don’t have an adult to go pick up a meal for them. So, I think every way we can keep our kids fed — that’s a safety issue, a health issue, and a comfort issue too. I think it’s important that we try to get that number up.”
April Jordan, director of school nutrition, said the district is being challenged by logistics and shortages since other systems are using the drive-through service.
“At this time, we don’t have enough hot containers to put on every bus in the county to move that food,” Jordan said. “Without those, we’re operating under time in lieu of temperature, which gives us four hours from the time it comes out of the warmer until the time it’s delivered, and with some of those bus routes in some areas of the county, it would be cutting close. At this point, we’re trying to focus on safety and the safest way we can deliver until we’re able to secure some more supplies.”
To increase the capacity, Jordan said the district would have to have hot holding cabinets on buses to keep a warm temperature and takeout plates and bags, which have a shortage now across the state.
As the board discussed meal delivery, officials also discussed other employment positions. Under the normal circumstances, Britt said bus drivers are only allowed to drive to pick up students and take them home, but the COVID-19 response relaxed restrictions because of the crisis.
“Now, there’s a lot of opportunities for those bus drivers to maintain their hours just as they had previously,” Britt said about additional work such as cleaning.
The same applies to teacher assistants as well. Carr said assistants at elementary school are being encouraged to make contact with homes for learning activities such as reading together through online applications such as FaceTime.
“I think keeping that personal contact will go a long way to help children feel supported and be double-doused like they’re in the classroom by the teacher and the TA,” she said. “We want to keep some of those instructional things in place.”
The board also discussed other COVID-19 impacts on education such as lack of tutors who provide additional support to small groups for End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests.
Schmidlin made a request for Bracy and Carr to create a position statement which provides broad guidance for expectations for teachers, students, and caregivers to have some level of expectations with school being closed until May 15. Register also made a request for more communication to students and teachers.
Bracy said a joint video message with Schmidlin will be released to staff members.
Clinton City Schools (CCS) are preparing their course of action in response to the school’s being closed. For now, Grab and Go meals will continue this week. Parents can pick up two meals on Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the school sites. On Fridays, parents will have the same pickup time, but they will pick three meals.
Some community sites have been added to the list including Friendly Community Center and Lisbon Street Church. Parents can pick up meals at these sites from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.
CCS has extended their hours on Wednesday until 6 p.m. so that parents can come to pick up any packets they haven’t received yet. However, the schools won’t be distributing any new packets.
The schools have set up filtered WiFi in multiple locations and they expect it to support 20 to 30 users at a time. The access is available from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. daily. Locations include the Clinton High School student parking lot, the Sampson Middle School back parking lot, the Sunset Avenue School Kerr Street parking lot, the Butler Avenue School bus parking lot and the L.C. Kerr Elementary School front parking lot.
Wednesday is a required workday with flexibility for teachers, Thursday is an annual leave day, while Friday is an optional workday with flexibility. Superintendent Dr. Wesley Johnson felt the need to cultivate CCS plans for students before disclosing any additional information.
Brendaly Vega Davis contributed to this story. Reach Chase Jordan at 910-592-8137. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.