‘Flexibility and Creativity’ Guiding N.C. School System Through the Pandemic


Superintendent says academics are important, but many other factors must be considered to assist families, teachers and support staff

Note: This is the fourth installment in a series on the Coronavirus pandemic. Links to previous articles are at the end of this post.

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By Michael M. Barrick

LENOIR, N.C. — Caldwell County Schools staff, though separated from students because of the Coronavirus pandemic, are responding well, says Superintendent Dr. Don Phipps. “Flexibility and creativity are the words for the moment.” He adds, “I’ve been in education 27 years. I’ve never, ever seen a time approaching this. It’s impossible to plan more than a week ahead. That’s just what we’re dealing with.”

From: identifying vulnerable students and families and offering them help or support without being overly intrusive; to making sure all students have access to the same instructional materials; to teachers learning how to use new technology; and nutritionists working to keep children fed at home — so much has changed because of the pandemic. He says that the school system is adjusting to “a new normal” that is unpredictable and full of unknowns.

“It’s a real challenge,” admits Phipps. “I’m worried about people losing jobs and being stuck at home. I’m worried about internet connections for students. It’s been a swirl.”

“I’ve been in education 27 years. I’ve never, ever seen a time approaching this. It’s impossible to plan more than a week ahead. That’s just what we’re dealing with.”

Nevertheless, the school year will end on time, says Phipps. “We do not intend to extend the school year in any way” whether or not students return to school in May. The system’s staff, families, students and the communities are working together to make the best of the situation, though Phipps acknowledges several challenges. First among them is identifying vulnerable students and families and determining how best to help them. 

“When schools are in session and ‘normal,’ many of the vulnerabilities are the same. Now, though, there are some students and families that have vulnerabilities that we hadn’t thought of.” So, he shares, “What I am encouraging staff to do is have regular communications every week with their students and families. It’s not just about academics, but we also ask, ‘Is there anything else you need?’ We are looking at the whole child literally. Do they have enough to eat? How are the family’s financial resources?” He continues, “We don’t have money to help, but we can put them in touch with resources in the community. We hope we’ve built relationships during normal times to help.”

He offers, “The best way is to know that each child is a unique individual. To understand where they come from, to build that trust between teacher and students and teacher and parents.” He insists, “We are not trying to pry. We are trying to gather information. A problem may be global or it might be unique to a family. We are concerned about academics, but we have to focus on these other things. We encourage our school counselors to be in contact with students. Some they normally work with.” In time, says Phipps, he hopes to have a phone number dedicated for students to reach out to school counselors. “That may be used for immediate help, or as a guide and resource the longer this goes on.”

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The community has been quite supportive, shares Phipps. “People are contacting us to see how they can help meet our needs. What I have seen is a really supportive community. I knew that. But in three weeks we have had many positive emails. They’re pats on the back. It’s really encouraging.” He passes the comments on to appropriate staff. “When somebody takes a minute to stop and praise their work, I want them to know. They’re appreciated for the small and big things.”

He continues, “We’ve had churches, business, industry and individuals reach out to help us. There are going to be opportunities for partnerships as this goes on. It will take many forms. We have not used some of their resources yet, but we will.”

He shared some of the challenges of the last few weeks and plans for moving forward. “We’ve been working on getting an accurate count of people that don’t have access to devices and the internet. We ask, ‘What does that mean and how do we get those devices to those students to level the playing field?’” Only 65 percent of students are estimated to have internet service but still may have the wrong devices. “Some don’t have a computer. Just a device. We’re looking at allowing students to have access to those at school.” Pointing to a program the school system previously developed in partnership with a private company, called rolling study halls, Phipps said a similar program, with buses set up in areas to provide internet access, is under consideration.

He continues, “Then you have specialized needs students. We want to make sure we don’t neglect them either.”

Phipps has high praise for the school system’s staff. In one day, they went from holding classes to shutting down. “That Monday we were all scurrying around. We had to tell them they are going to have to retool and be able to change within two weeks. We’ve done that.” Employees were forced to become familiar with tools they have rarely or never used. Phipps notes, “The fluency is coming along. It gets better every time and that’s what I’m hearing.”

Even in the midst of the learning curve, teachers and others must continue to meet student needs. “We are trying to overcome every obstacle,” shares Phipps. “We are putting out study packets to distribute. There is the online component going on. We are reaching out by phone or some other means of communications weekly.”

He continues, “We have a feeding program. Frozen meals of breakfast and lunch are distributed twice a week with directions on how to store and fix them. This is for any person aged 0 – 18.” Phipps says the school system does get reimbursed for the meals and it helps keep his staff employed.

He observes, “It just jerked us to a stop. We had to figure out how to move on. It has certainly not been in a straight line. Our teachers are learning things going through the process. What I’ve learned is that if we’re back to normal in August, there will be resources that we’ll be using that we weren’t using when the semester started in January.”

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Phipps is concerned about the stress on students and families from the dramatic societal changes over the past few weeks. “I do sense a great deal of stress for obvious reasons. Some people are better equipped to help their children (with school work) than others.” He says he reminds his teachers that while they may be focused on just one student when talking to a parent, they need to realize that they may have three children at home, all with their own demands. “We must be sensitive to the demands on our families,” says Phipps. “We must strike a balance. We don’t want to do too little, but also not too much. We certainly don’t want to stress them. When you consider all the factors, we don’t want to push someone past the stress point.”

Phipps observes, “It varies from week to week. We can’t look far ahead. Just like we need to meet the needs of diverse learners, we also need to keep in mind that families’ needs vary. We need to know the situations in the home. There could be a lot of stressors going on right now. We can’t go back to January. Their world is completely different now. That’s where relationships come in. We know where to intervene, we know where help is needed.”

He shares that parents seem to welcome the involvement. Recalling a story shared by a teacher that held video conferences with students recently, he says, “Parents were asking questions too.” He adds, “They are talking with teachers. They’re not afraid to say they struggled more than a child did on a particular task.”

Those questions reveal high parental involvement, so Phipps offers some counsel for parents to keep students moving in the right direction. “First and foremost try to establish a structure and routine. This is not summer. There needs to be some kind of routine during particular tasks and activities, things they haven’t done before.. Real life activities. A lot of our young folks haven’t had that kind of experience. Our parents, caregivers and grandparents can pass on life skills.”

“Right now, public education may be in a higher place in terms of public perception than it has been in a long time. As our community goes through this together, and sees the heavy lifting and great deal of time and effort that goes into every day, it will offer a unique view from behind the curtain.”

While Phipps says that he has no idea if students will return to school before the year is scheduled to end, he says he is committed to making sure graduations and proms are held and yearbooks published. He points out also that reading camps and other summer obligations are up in the air. “We just can’t plan too far out,” he says.

As for the costs of the pandemic on the already financially-stressed system, Phipps says it’s also “a question mark.” For now, all costs are being documented for potential reimbursement. The school system’s human resources and finance staff have their hands full trying to calculate leave, unemployment and other costs. “They are working so hard. This is just completely different. We have a lot of learning in the moment. We are living in the new normal.”

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Still, Phipps is hopeful. “In times of crisis there are opportunities to see things you might not have seen if things were normal.” He continues, “We have worked hard to establish positive relationships — school to family and the school system to the community. We are focused on those relationships. They are more important than any time before.”

He observes also, “Right now, public education may be in a higher place in terms of public perception than it has been in a long time. As our community goes through this together, and sees the heavy lifting and great deal of time and effort that goes into every day, it will offer a unique view from behind the curtain.”

“I’m pleased with the patience our people have shown. Nobody has thrown up their hands. Yes, we’re frustrated but we’re staying positive.”

While he acknowledges that the pandemic and resulting school closings have presented the school system with countless unprecedented challenges and obstacles, Phipps offers, “Our focus is on families. That helps us all as we go through this.” He continues, “I’m pleased with the patience our people have shown. Nobody has thrown up their hands. Yes, we’re frustrated but we’re staying positive.”

PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED IN THIS SERIES ON THE CORONAVIRUS

Governors Must Fill Leadership Gap

Coronavirus Requires Robust Local Response

Yokefellow Needs Help Meeting Increased Demand for Food

© Michael M. Barrick, 2020. Classroom photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash. Person at laptop photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash. Faces photo by visuals on Unsplash

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