First Six Weeks

Leadership Offers Assessment of First Six Weeks
Posted on 09/23/2020
This is the image for the news article titled Leadership Offers Assessment of First Six WeeksThe first six weeks of Weakley County Schools 2020-21 academic year is coming to a close. With that date comes the reality of report cards and assessing progress. Turning the tables on administration, the following is a look at where they identified the district has seen success and a few areas in need of improvement.

Overall, principals offer a thumbs up on reopening plans. Jeff Cupples in Greenfield even points out “we have been able to remain open where other systems have not. Staff and students, have been willing to make the adjustments necessary for our overall health and safety during this time."

Beth Kempton, RN, School Nurse Supervisor and the nurse at Westview, shared the thoughts of many when she responded, “I have been very happy that at Westview students, staff and faculty have been great with wearing their masks and social distancing!” (She added that she is hopeful the added protections will help keep flu cases to a minimum.)

Westview Principal Jeromy Davidson agrees, pointing specifically to students’ “adaptability to fit these challenges and willingness to be helpful in these trying times” as he adds, “Kudos to our kids.”

In a recent meeting of school principals and Central Office staff, praise was consistent for the nursing staff who are carrying the additional weight of navigating through COVID-19 ever-changing guidelines. The phrase most often repeated was a simple, “I don’t know what I would do without her.”

Such sentiment prompted Randy Frazier, director of Weakley County Schools, to confirm, “If there were ever a question on whether using local funding to make sure we have a nurse at every school was a good idea, we now have our answer.”

Melanie Needham, principal at Dresden Elementary School, made note of some of the physical adjustments that had to be made to reopen all ten campuses.

“Students are back in school. They are learning and happy to see their classmates and teachers. We have reworked our bus line and car line procedures. Both processes are more efficient and running smoothly. Our school nurse has relocated and changed her way of offering services to students. She is doing a great job with day to day illnesses/injuries as well as addressing COVID-19 concerns.”

David Lewellen, principal at Dresden Middle School, addressed COVID-19 protocol successes in his remarks as well. “I am really impressed by the students’ willingness to wear the masks. Very few students have forgotten them over the first six weeks. The students and teachers have done an outstanding job in transitioning into an unusual school year. Our traffic flow in the mornings and afternoon for drop offs and pickups has worked well. I had a parent tell me that they felt less stress with the new traffic flow.”

Jon Gardner, principal at Martin Middle School, also noticed positive results from the new procedures, “Our separate class changes by grade level have proven very effective as students can move with social distancing in mind. A positive unintended consequence is that we have very few discipline issues in the hallways now.”

Sharon Principal Michelle Clements sees the extraordinary efforts being made by the teachers, “Although change can be difficult, our teachers are doing an excellent job continuing to make school fun and engaging for our students. I love seeing our teachers think outside the box and be creative with their lessons. Seeing the joy in our students' eyes as we have library class outside, grow guinea eggs in an incubator, and learn new games in PE has made the school year feel more normal.”

Lorna Benson, the WCS Safety Coordinator who helped shaped the initial plans for reopening and was responsible for ordering everything from hand sanitizer to thermometers had a ready reply to where the county was excelling.

“The SROs and the morning staff responsible for helping students safely enter the school and parents should definitely receive a shout out,” she said. “Our health and safety protocols are working. Thanks to staff at each building and our maintenance staff, it’s gone well. And we have to praise parents who have done the right thing, monitored their child’s health before school, and quickly responding when called to pick up a sick child.”

Other areas that are deemed in the excellent category are substitute teacher pay raises, free meals for all students through the end of December, WeakleyCARES volunteers, and funding a new transition case manager in special education and a new mental health liaison at Greenfield School (thanks to an ongoing partnership with Carey Counseling). The LifeSkills program has also been expanded to now provide additional social and emotional helps for freshman as well as middle school.

After a short delay the Backpack Program is resuming with students receiving meals packed for the weekend and the After School Programs are underway at Martin and Dresden Elementary.

Deborah Perkins, director of the Special Education department, had more to add to successes, “Special education teachers have worked diligently to prepare for having students in the classroom and on Monitored Distance Education. IEP meetings have been held for both groups of students. Special education teachers are working with parents, general education teachers, related service providers, and principals to develop contingency plans for potential school closure. In addition, contact has been made with MDE students to provide needed services.”

MDE or Monitored Distance Education has proven to be both a success and a challenge. Established as an option weeks prior to school reopening, the personal learning platform was initially considered to be a easily monitored response for families who opted not to return to school for health reasons. Betsi Foster, who usually oversees the school district’s federal programs and grants, set up the system. As the numbers participating grew, she soon became aware that a director would need to be employed.
Krystle Smith, on loan from Martin Middle School, now provides oversight to the program, works with the teachers who have agreed to take on the additional responsibility of monitoring the 560+ students enrolled, and, when necessary, even answers students’ calls.

“Krystle is the right person for this role,” said Foster. “She wants this tool to help our students learn, not just keep them busy. And she is modeling the kind of commitment we will need from teachers and students alike in order to prevent the slide that time away from in-person teaching often creates.”

“Learning as we go” is reality in 2020, even when it comes to product orders. While Benson was grateful for the on-time delivery of many of the products necessary to sanitize and disinfect, she acknowledged that not all has gone according to plan. Faulty hand sanitizer dispensers are currently being replaced. After learning that white paper towels are far more absorbent of disinfectant, they are now replacing the brown versions. In the future, should clear water bottles be needed again, better seals will be a priority. And she joins Coordinated School Health’s Bethany Allen in anticipating delivery of the ordered-but-delayed hydration stations and thanking the community for stepping up with donations of bottled water.

With all the COVID-related adjustments, the desire for some sense of “normal” is constant. Board members at September’s meeting praised schools who had successfully managed a return to athletics with socially-distanced audiences watching.

Back inside the schools, Needham underscores, “We are continually looking for ways to replace traditional student-centered activities that we can't have as normal such as Citizen of the Month ceremonies and fall festival- events where families would typically be with their student.”

Principal/Athletic Director at Gleason School Lee Lawrence, noted, “It's satisfactory to know that our school and community can unite for the common good of our children, in the case the most important areas of safety, health and well-being. We've also been able to work out a morning schedule where our clubs and classes can begin meeting in the gym in a socially distanced format. We are eager to have as many normal activities for our children as possible.”

This year “normal” for primary and elementary schools would have been digging into a new English Language Arts curriculum.

Tracey Bell, principal at Martin Primary School, touched on the juggling act teachers are enduring as they meet state requirements, learn new materials, and prepare in case of a future closure.

“Our teachers and students have been extremely resilient during this transition period. Teachers have jumped in with both feet and have been willing to do whatever it takes to meet our students’ social, emotional and academic needs -- all while trying to implement a new ELA curriculum and focusing on skill deficient areas.”

All the efforts can take their toll.

Lewellen admits that with success comes weariness. “The downside is teachers have taken on many new responsibilities to make things go smoothly and they feel like they have less time to focus on their classrooms. Also, bus dismissal used to take 10 minutes to board all the students at once. Now we have spread that out over a 40-minute time period.”

Several principals addressed the ongoing need for effective communication.

Bell pointed out, “For sure something we continue to work on daily is being flexible with all the changes taking place. That involves schedule, staff and COVID changes. I think we all agree that communication in all areas is something we can strengthen.”

Lawrence said, “The COVID process sometimes causes us to make decisions that can change quickly, especially with the onset of new information. Our goal is to always remain consistent with information that we send out to the public, as well as, our students and parents. Some inconsistencies have occurred at times with the flow of information, but after six weeks we feel we have this area corrected and more of a normal routine established.”

Cupples echoed the sentiment, “When operating in unprecedented times, communication is critical. I am really excited about the district's purchase expanding the Remind app so that the school can better communicate with our families."

A final shared concern dealt with what is happening outside the school walls and off campuses. Frazier made the plea at the last meeting of the School Board that communities support the schools by wearing masks and maintaining at least six feet of distance when in public places.

Martin Middle’s Gardner sees signs that plea bears repeating, “I wonder how the school district could encourage good social distancing/masking/hygiene behaviors for students when they aren't at school. I feel like we are doing a really good job in the schools, but I am concerned that these precautions aren't always taking place elsewhere.”

“When I see individuals on the weekends not wearing masks and am shown photos from social media of large gatherings, I do find it frustrating,” Frazier concluded. “We are doing all we can, investing in safety procedures and products, asking so much of our faculty and staff so that we can remain open and provide in-person instruction to our students. We need our communities to join us in this commitment to safety.”