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With pandemic worsening in Stanly, Dennis worried about shortage of available teachers and staff

As Stanly County continues to see an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, with the county surpassing 500 active cases for the first time last week, Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis expressed his concern that eventually there might not be enough teachers and staff available in the schools.

With many substitutes wary about going into schools and with teachers having to quarantine after getting infected or being exposed to the virus, “my biggest fear is not having enough staff,” said Dennis, who took over as superintendent at the beginning of November.

But so far at least, the school system has been able to make do.

“We’re lucky enough right now that our classes are low, so we can still combine some our classes and still keep our class size where it needs to be,” Dennis said.

Other certified school staff, such as teacher assistants, have been able to cover classrooms when teachers are out, but even these resources have been stretched thin.

From Dec. 3 through Dec. 9, Stanly County Schools reported 40 students who were positive with the virus along with 11 staff members, according to data from the school system’s website, an increase from the 20 students and 11 staff members who were positive the week before.

With an estimated 800 students currently working remote set to transition back to in-person learning next semester, Dennis feels confident that the influx of students won’t lead to an increase in new coronavirus cases.

“As far as new students coming in, I think we’ll be able to assimilate them in and still be able to use all safety protocols and still not miss a beat,” he said.

Dennis is worried about the upcoming holiday break and the fact that students could transmit the virus once they come back to school in January.

“I’m more worried about what’s going to happen over the holidays as far as when people meet and get together and then how that translates into the new school year,” he said, noting that many of the cases in the schools originated from within the community.

With the holiday break beginning Dec. 23, Dennis encourages students and staff to practice social distancing whenever possible, wear masks when needed and continue washing their hands.

Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis. 

The school system is working with the county health department to handle any students or staff who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Dennis said the threshold for shutting down a grade level or possibly even a school is if a cluster of cases is discovered. A cluster is defined by the state’s Health and Human Services Department as a minimum of five cases. While there have been a few isolated incidents within classrooms, Dennis says that no schools have this far shut down.

In looking to the future, one of Dennis’ biggest goals for the next school year is working to make sure the students who may have fallen behind this year can get caught up. He is especially concerned with students who are fully remote and who were already struggling before the pandemic began. Many of them could be multiple years behind where they need to be once the new school year begins.

“When we do get the kids back to school then we’re really going to have to concentrate on getting our kids where they need to be and should be…because we’re going to have a lot of kids who are behind and we’re going to have kids who have failed their classes,” he said.

“Our principals and staff have done an outstanding job with trying to contact these kids (working exclusively from home),” Dennis said. “They try and contact them over and over trying to reach them, but some of them either we can’t contact them or if we do contact them, they just don’t follow through with the engagement piece.”

The past month of helping to steer the school system through “unprecedented times” has only solidified in Dennis the importance of being flexible and trying to understand what he doesn’t know.

“You can get all the degrees in the world and you’re still not prepared for this,” he said of the pandemic. With so many people working and learning from home, Dennis says educating students will be “fundamentally changed” as a result of the pandemic.

This year has also offered superintendents like Dennis opportunities to provide stable leadership during trying times.

“I think it makes you a stronger leader when you have to be outside your comfort zone and you have to learn to lead in uncomfortable circumstances because not everything is always going to be nice and peachy,” he said.

Alluding to his time in the N.C. Army National Guard, Dennis said what was always taught in the military was to adapt and overcome as the situation dictates and that’s where the school system finds itself now.

“We have to adapt and overcome, we don’t have a choice,” he said.

 

 

 

 

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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