Blake-Lewis talks challenges of teaching, learning during the pandemic

As someone who’s served in numerous educational capacities for more than 20 years, including as a teacher, principal and university professor, Dr. Amy Blake-Lewis has experience working with all kinds of teachers and students at all grade levels.

But not much could have prepared her for her current role as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Stanly County Schools when she arrived in the county last June, a few months before the start of the school year. In her first semester, she’s dealt with all the obstacles that have come to define learning during the coronavirus pandemic — remote students struggling and falling behind; lack of reliable internet in many parts of the county; students and staff being quarantined due to possible exposure to the virus; and teachers feeling overwhelmed and burnt out trying to adequately provide for their students.

“Obviously this has been a different kind of school year and it’s been unlike anything we’ve ever had to experience before,” said Blake-Lewis.

Even with an increase in coronavirus cases over the past few weeks in the county, the school system returned to its in-person learning rotations this week.

Compared with other school districts in the area, “we’ve been able to get our students back in for face-to-face instruction more than anyone around us and I think that’s something to be celebrated,” she said.

Dr. Amy Blake-Lewis was hired as assistant superintendent for curriculum Stanly County Schools in mid-June. Helping students who are struggling

Blake-Lewis acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges about this school year has been with remote learning, especially getting in touch with students working from home.

“Our students who have chosen to be full remote, we’re having some trouble getting in touch with them,” she said, even though teachers have been calling, emailing and utilizing social media to reconnect with families. As a result, many remote students are failing and have fallen behind, she said.

When report cards first came out in the fall, Blake-Lewis mentioned that “we were seeing a higher number than usual of students who were not being successful.”

In order to help alleviate the situation, Blake-Lewis’ curriculum team brought together select groups of middle school and high school teachers, content experts she called them, to develop unit recovery modules that struggling students could complete to boost their grades. These modules highlighted critical areas of content that students needed to grasp before moving on to another unit or even another class.

“We’ve always had credit recovery at the high school level when a student got to the end of a course and they hadn’t passed and they could come and do so many hours during the summer…so we’ve modified that process to be unit recovery,” Blake-Lewis said.

She has been tracking the hours logged onto the modules by each school. Blake-Lewis said North Stanly High School and West Stanly Middle School are “leading the pack” when it comes to their usage of the resource.

This is just another way for teachers to provide grace to students during a time when they may be struggling with problems that extend beyond the confines of the classroom.

Blake-Lewis and her team have also been emphasizing to principals the importance of promoting a sense of normalcy for students which can allow for predictability in their day and can promote feelings of security.

“Anything that those teachers can do to continue with that sense of normalcy” is key, she said, adding that it’s also important “that the expectations are constant, but that they’re not overbearing.”

Helping principals and teachers to teach at a distance

Blake-Lewis continues to meet with her curriculum team, which consists of a group of eight people in charge of, among other things, elementary education and AIG, secondary education, exceptional children and career and technical education.

At least once or twice a month the curriculum team hosts one-hour virtual sessions with principals called Curriculum Conversations, where they highlight best practices for teachers to use to for remote learning.

As part of these sessions, starting in December, the team began discussing with principals concepts from the book “The Distance Learning Playbook, Grades K-12: Teaching for Engagement and Impact in Any Setting,” which they can take back to share with their teachers. The book, which was published last summer, focuses on “the research- and evidence-based strategies” teachers can use to better reach and connect with their remote students. Some of the chapters, or modules as they’re referred to in the playbook, include forming the teacher-student relationship from a distance, the importance of teacher credibility at a distance, and planning instructional units at a distance.

“So one session every month we model for our principals some of the content from this resource and then we charge them with taking it back into their school and implanting it within their specific school site,” Blake-Lewis said.

Her team plans out each session in advance before presenting it to the principals.

To augment teacher support, especially for those teaching EOC courses, the school system has been using coronavirus relief money to purchase specialized video conferencing equipment called Poly Studio. The devices come equipped with a camera, speakers and a microphone and can block out any distracting noises.

“It’s voice activated so if a teacher is up and moving around the room…the camera can track the teacher and the quality of the audio is much better than just sitting in front of a video camera,” she said.

With the Poly Studio device in each classroom, students who are working from home “can almost have that simulated experience of still sitting in the classroom with the teacher because they cannot only hear and see the teacher, but they can hear and see their fellow classmates as well,” Blake-Lewis said.

The school system has purchased 60 devices and is still installing them in classrooms across the county. As more coronavirus relief funds become available, Blake-Lewis said SCS will continue to purchase more devices.

Putting students first

Throughout her time with SCS, Blake-Lewis has focused on the things she has control over, like making sure students are as safe as possible and are receiving the best instruction under the circumstances.

“There are those things that are within your control and things that are outside your control. The virus is clearly outside of our control” she said, “but we can do things to mitigate the spread of the virus and so that’s really where my focus is and I think that’s where the focus of district staff and personnel is.

“We have our controls in place at our schools and we continue to follow those religiously every day,” she added.

In this school year filled with so much uncertainty, Blake-Lewis stressed that one constant has always been in place.

“Every decision that we’ve made, every consideration that we’ve entertained has always been with the idea, does this put students first? I don’t think that that has changed even with COVID. That has still been our number one consideration.”