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Closed classrooms, open schools

Kentucky School Advocate
April 2020
 
By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

Tucked inside a dimly lit classroom, three fourth-grade teachers are crafting lessons that can be delivered online. In the next county, a custodian crouches on her hands and knees as she scrubs tile in a kindergarten bathroom. She wants it to be spotless if and when students return. 

Across town, a superintendent boards a school bus with food service workers to deliver meals to students who he knows might not otherwise eat.

In a Family Resource Center, the center director makes numerous calls to families that she’s sure will need some help. 

This is the new normal in Kentucky public schools, one in which teachers, administrators, food service workers, counselors and others desperately try to serve their students wherever they are – anywhere but in the school building.

“Our school systems have been amazing, they have responded,” Gov. Andy Beshear said. “They are doing everything they can to provide instruction to their students. Every single school district is now qualified to try to do that and how they have come together in almost every district to deliver meals is nothing short of patriotic.” 

Beshear announced March 20 that schools would remain closed until at least April 20 in order to help stem the spread of the coronavirus which has caused a global pandemic. Before the closures, 83 school districts participated in the Kentucky Department of Education’s Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) program. By March 19, all 172 districts were on board. 

Keep students learning
With short notice, many teachers scrambled to prepare lessons for their students whether online or on paper. The night before the March 16 closure, 40 Fort Thomas Independent teachers logged into their computers on their own time for a video chat on how best to serve students. The next day, teachers in other districts delivered packets to individual students’ homes and parents drove to many schools to pick up their students’ assignments. 

The instruction continues, but it isn’t the same. 

“Today was a very strange day as I sat in my very empty, quiet room. I missed the emotions that come with all of my students and fun conversations,” Boone County teacher Tracy Moore wrote on Twitter March 16. “But most of all I missed the new things they teach me every day. Rally together and we’ll make it the best #MyNTIKy.” 

Teachers have turned to technology to reach their students, hosting video conference calls with their classes and scouring the web for online resources. A Paris Independent teacher created a virtual show and tell for students to show off their pets, a Fayette County teacher created a virtual spirit week asking students to wear different attire each day, and teachers and parents alike showed off their work on Twitter using the hashtag #MyNTIKy. 

A teacher’s Facebook group put together a week of live lessons on a sister page for parents. But educators know that not all students have access to a computer or Internet. In Jefferson County, district administrators announced a plan to try to secure 25,000 Chromebooks. 

Food service continues
As cars line up around what is usually a drop-off line at Huntertown Elementary in Woodford County, Principal Elaine Kaiser greets her students through the open windows while parents wait for the cafeteria workers to bring out bagged lunches. 

“How’s it going? Are you working hard?” she asks as a family waits for their food. 

For some cars, cafeteria worker Lisa Mohrmann grabs a bag of shelf stable food off a nearby table and hands it to the families along with lunch. 

“I work the cash register, so I usually know who to give one to,” she said. 

Across the state districts are providing lunch and breakfast under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service program. On the first day of closure, KDE had approved 882 food sites in 87 counties. 

In western Kentucky, McCracken County school board Chairman Chris Taylor said the district served 3,600 meals the first day – about 56 percent of the district’s students. 

In eastern Kentucky, Floyd County Schools bus drivers delivered the meals. On the second day of the closure, March 17, the drivers delivered 2,030 meals.

As the week went on, most districts saw the number of meals served rise exponentially. In Louisville, Jefferson County Schools distributed 2,739 breakfasts and 2,804 lunches on the first day of the delivery program. Those numbers had nearly doubled by the second day and by March 20 the district had served 50,100 meals for the week.

At Bondurant Middle School in Franklin County, cafeteria workers put out balloons and played a radio to keep the mood positive as families drove by to pick up lunch.

“We feel like we get to contribute to helping out the kids that may be in need,” said Jessica Harris, a food service worker at the school. “We’ve got to look at it like the bigger picture, this really feels great for the short window that we are out here.” 

Food service workers in Union and Metcalfe counties wrote notes on bananas before slipping them into bags.

“It’s a great day to be a hornet,” a Metcalfe County Schools worker wrote on a banana. One in Union County simply read, “We miss you.” 

Meeting students’ needs 
With the closure extended to at least April 20, and information changing daily, schools and districts are just trying to keep up.

“Every day is different,” Kaiser said. “You want to make sure that you’re meeting all of their needs, but at the same time, I don’t even think the families know what they need yet. I have a feeling that as this goes on longer, and it will, that the need is going to be drastically different.”

Across town at Woodford’s Simmons Elementary, Principal Tiffany Cook was taking a similar approach – basic needs first. 

“So we wanted to make sure that they had food. We want to make sure that they had a safe place to be,” she said. 

Teachers and counselors are trying to connect with each student, she said. In addition to phone calls and video conference, the school is sending letters to students with return postcards to write on and send back, she said.

“There’s not a chapter about this in the getting ready to be a principal book,” Cook said. “But you know what, this team – everybody has jumped in from central office to the custodian and everybody’s just jumping up to do whatever, however.”

Deep-cleaned Classrooms  
School custodians are using the closure to deep clean their schools – wiping down lockers, mopping floors and sanitizing everything anyone may touch. 

Aspen Letulle, custodian at Bridgeport Elementary in Franklin County, was meticulously cleaning a kindergarten classroom down to the individual building blocks in the kindergarten classroom she’s responsible for. 

“I have literally started at the vents and worked my way down to the base boards,” she said. She’s done everything except getting the school ready for summer closure, but Letulle said she fears that may be coming sooner rather than later. 

At Bondurant Middle School, custodian Zach Woodrum used extra strong cleaning solution as he mopped the floors and had plans to wipe down every locker.

Meanwhile, Principal Whitney Allison walked the empty halls between video conference meetings with central office staff, teachers and the many phone calls from parents with concerns about instruction, technology and food service.

“If we can provide a source of help in some way, we do. I think that’s how our role has shifted. Obviously, we want kids to continue learning, right? That’s just going have to look differently.”

Allison admits she doesn’t have all the answers – no one does.

“I think it’s OK to be honest about it and say we don’t know about certain things,” she said. “But here are the things that we can control and here are the ways that we can help.”
 
Photo 1: Huntertown Elementary fourth-grade teachers (from left) Maggie Schrader, Angela Bentley and Sue Owen work on creating lessons that can be given online for NTI days.
 
Photo 2: Huntertown Elementary Cafeteria Manager Debbie McEwan (left) and food service worker Dodie Warford load hot dogs into bags for lunch at the Woodford County school. 
 
Photo 3: Food service worker Stacey DeLong takes lunches from a coworker at Bondurant Middle School to pass to a student’s family on March 17.
 
Photo 4: Union County Schools food service workers wrote notes for students on the bananas they put in students’ lunches. (Photo was tweeted by Superintendent Patricia Sheffer)
 
Photo 5: Frankfort Independent Superintendent Houston Barber and staff members Nikki Morgan (left) and Sarah Ferriell (right) ride buses to deliver meals to students on March 18.
 
Photo 6:  Franklin County Schools custodian Aspen Letulle vacuums in a kindergarten classroom at Bridgeport Elementary. Letulle cleaned her classrooms from top to bottom.
 
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Three lessons learned responding to an unprecedented crisis 

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