By Brenna R. Kelly
When Harry Burchett became superintendent of Harrison County on July 1, 2019 he could have never imagined his school district of nearly 3,000 students would be the first in the state affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
But that’s what happened on Friday, March 6. The next morning, he became the first superintendent in the state to decide to cancel in-person classes.
Since then, superintendents across the state have looked to Burchett’s leadership as they faced the same unprecedented shutdown.
Communication, teamwork and making sure to meet students’ academic and mental health needs are all important in managing the closure, Burchett said.
“I just can’t brag on my staff enough because regardless of your role, if you’re a bus driver or cook, office worker, aide, teacher, regardless of your role, everyone has stepped up,” he said. “And really my biggest challenge in the last few days has been to get people to go home.”
Staff has been delivering meals, while teachers create more lesson for non-traditional instruction. And while those are both important, Burchett and his staff didn’t forget students’ mental health.
The district has a 24-hour a day mental wellness hotline. During the day students get a live person, at night students first get a recording. When they leave a message a staff member calls them back.
“There’s a phone that gets moved around from person to person on our team, which is our school psychologists, our counselors and our social workers,” he said. “It's our staff talking to our students, so they know the person they’re talking to.”
Burchett would recommend all districts find some way to address students’ emotional needs during this time.
“It's absolutely instrumental,” he said. “We don't realize what our children are going through right now with this shift.”
In addition to preparing the NTI work, teachers are also finding other ways to reach out to Harrison County students. Some are reading books online, others are calling and checking in.
Burchett also recommends districts become connected to their local government leaders now, and to prepare for future crises.
“We had in place some great community partnerships, I will have to say it’s beyond anything I’ve seen anywhere else. We have regular community partnership meetings in this area. So that was instrumental early on in this process of having, one the trust, and (two) the facts to make informed decisions,” he said. “If that wasn’t in place, Saturday, March 7, I couldn’t have made the decision that we made, which allowed us to kind of get ahead of this thing.”