Educators, counselor discuss keys to successful reopening
While North Stanly High School drafting teacher Tina Carter is excited to see her students again when the school year begins Monday, she, like many other teachers, still have some lingering concerns about returning to the classroom amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t have a 100-percent, without-a-doubt, for-sure attitude that this is the right thing,” she said in an interview with the Stanly News & Press about having in-person instruction.
She said the school system is in “uncharted waters.” But she credits Stanly County Schools for creating a plan with numerous guidelines in place to allow for students to safely return to class.
“We’re certainly going to give it a good shot,” she said about schools reopening.
Carter, who is the 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year, compared the current situation to an engineer working on a new project: “Nothing is ever designed correctly the first time,” she said. “You always improve, you always make changes, you always tweak.”
SCS is operating under a hybrid plan where elementary students will be going to school five days a week while middle and high school students will be alternating between weeks of in-person and remote instruction; students also have the option of exclusively working remotely from home. Each school district in the state has its own unique plans, with many — ike Rowan-Salisbury and Iredell-Statesville — utilizing a similar model as Stanly’s while others — like Cabarrus and Mecklenburg — are preparing to start the year virtually.
Numerous protective measures will be put into place including mask requirements for all staff and students, daily screening questions and temperature checks and dividing students into small groups.
Acting Superintendent Vicki Calvert said preparing for the upcoming year is like “standing on shifting sand,” with the numerous, and often confusing, guidelines and regulations from the state.
“We’re making every effort to prepare for every scenario,” she said.
While teachers and staff are excited to see the students, Calvert acknowledged that “I think everyone has a bit of hesitation” for the upcoming school year.
Kelly Dombrowski, principal at Oakboro Choice STEM School, is excited to see her students and staff again though she has some reservations.
“I usually love this time of year when everyone is filled with excitement over new teachers, and school supplies,” she said, “but there is still a lot that we just don’t know, which creates more than the typical ‘first day of school jitters.’ ”
“I know many are worried about returning to the classrooms they love without being able to do the things like hugging a student and working shoulder to shoulder,” Dombrowski added, “but despite that, this team of educators will rise above it and do what has to be done. ”
Carter said that while she doesn’t know what the best plan is for reopening schools, she has a responsibility to teach her students.
“If my kids are willing to come then I’m going to be there,” she said.
She said she has talked with many teachers who are also in favor of beginning school with in-person instruction.
She knows how devastating the virus can be. She has friends who have died due to the virus. Carter said she completely understands if teachers or students, for any number of reasons, don’t feel comfortable returning.
“We’re all juggling the ‘what ifs?’ ” that come with the pandemic, said Carter. “I hope this is something that will eventually resolve itself…but in the interim period, I also feel like we’ve taken a lot of measures to control it.”
Carter added that she thinks even a little face-to-face instruction is better than no face-to-face instruction.
With so much uncertainty, a key for teachers this year will be showing grace and compassion to their students, said Dr. Christopher Boe, dean of the Division of Education at Pfeiffer University. Boe said the social and emotional learning that students develop in school will be just as important as traditional academic learning.
“Being thoughtful and understanding the human first and the student second,” will be critical for teachers when interacting with their students, he said.
Boe added that the safety of the students, and making sure they feel comfortable and secure, is paramount this year.
“Figuring out the best option to keep people safe but to keep learning moving forward has been what the districts and the state have really tried to facilitate,” he said.
Having a sense of empathy for others will also be a valuable tool as schools reopen.
“Administrators need to have empathy for teachers, teachers for students and families need to have it for teachers as well,” Boe said, adding that the pandemic “is new for everybody.”
The stress that already exists for many teachers as they finalize their curriculums and lesson plans is only exacerbated due to the virus, said Melissa Barbee, a licensed clinical mental health counselor with Monarch.
As the mother of a kindergarten student about to start school in the county, Barbee said she has conflicting feelings. She’s anxious yet at the same time excited for her son.
The hardest part about preparing to reopen, Barbee said, is that there are still so many unknowns — both about the virus’ effects on younger children and about reopening during an unusual time.
And how much all this uncertainty will affect a person’s mental health is dependent upon the individual, she stressed.
“Staying connected socially, and realizing that we are all in this together can help normalize a person’s feelings,” she said.
Parents can do their best to help alleviate any concerns their children might be having by listening to them and talking with them about the upcoming year, Barbee said. It’s also important for families to partake in healthy distractions such as spending time hiking, swimming or playing board games together.
It’s important not to worry about circumstances that are beyond one’s control, including what might happen once school starts, but rather focus on staying positive and being alert in the present moment, Barbee said. Engaging in deep breathing exercises and calming activities can also help to reduce the stress.
And if the stress and anxiety seem overwhelming, Barbee said it’s perfectly natural for people to seek outside help. Monarch, for instance, has outpatient therapy for adults and children. As the in-home therapy team leader, Barbee offers weekly therapy sessions for kids and families. Monarch’s services are being offered through telehealth.
Carter said that for all the teachers who feel comfortable and who are able to return to school, “I hope that we’re all unified and that we all support each other and encourage each other and the students.”
Dombrowski, the Oakboro principal, plans to make the best of the upcoming year.
“At this point, I am going to focus on that which I can control which is being there for my own family, my teachers and our STEM scholars and trying to make the best out of this situation and year,” she said.
Contact reporter Chris Miller at 704-982-2122.