Just days before students returned to their classrooms four days a week, Harrison County Schools Superintendent Harry Burchett caught a glimpse of the way things used to be.
After a long day the at the office, Burchett drove home through the district’s hilltop campus where the high school, middle school, an elementary school and the district’s athletic facilities all sit. He first noticed walkers enjoying the late afternoon sun on the community walking track.
“As I rounded the middle school, over on the main high school track was the track team and track coach. As I rounded the gymnasium, the middle school had the archery team in there, in the big football fieldhouse there were students up there working out,” he said.
As he drove down the hill, the softball and baseball teams were practicing on their fields, across the street the middle school boys soccer team was working out and the tennis team was on the court hitting volleys. Burchett then spent the evening at a park where he watched as children climbed on the playground and the district’s ROTC team practiced their drills.
“What a blessing to see the joy and the participation of students out doing what they’re supposed to do,” Burchett said. “That probably was as enlightening and positive as the vaccination day was for me. It shows you that the kids are resilient, they persevere, and they go on and they’re going to be just fine.”First in the state
Harrison County Superintendent Harry Burchett, right, prepares to receive the first dose of his COVID-19 vaccination. Burchett and other central office employees received the vaccines first to alleviate any concerns other staff members may have had. (Photo provided by KDE)
Burchett’s feeling of hope came almost one year to the day after Harrison County became the first school district in the state to cease in-person instruction because of the coronavirus.On March 6, 2020, Burchett learned his county had the first diagnosed case of coronavirus in the state. At the time, Burchett could only tell the school board and his executive staff what public health officials had shared with him – from that one case, 54 medical personnel had been quarantined.
“And that did not include anybody in the public who had come into contact with this young lady and, bless her heart, it wasn't her fault. She didn't know what she had,” he said.
But officials needed time to find the woman’s contacts, which could have been extensive since she worked at the local Wal-Mart. After a meeting of 30 county, city and public health officials on March 7, Burchett knew what he had to do – close school starting March 9.
“We didn’t want to bring somebody that possibly was exposed into the school and possibly further the spread,” he said. The one-week closure would give public heath officials the time to contact trace and control the spread.
But by the end of those five days everything had changed. On March 12, Gov. Andy Beshear and then interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown asked all Kentucky schools to close for two weeks.
“We had no idea that at that point in time that we would be out for the rest of the year,” Burchett said. “And then even after we got through the end of the year, we were thinking, ‘OK, well, let's plan on our start back to school in August.’”
The district resumed in-person classes two days a week on Oct. 12, but it would be more than a year before Harrison County students would be back in their classrooms four days a week.
Over that year, the district delivered thousands of meals to students’ homes, distributed Chromebooks to all students and provided professional learning to all teachers who then created their own virtual curriculum using Google classroom.
“Our teachers were adamant that they wanted to be the ones to develop, create and provide the curriculum and the instructional materials and the lessons for their individual classrooms,” he said.
The district committed to serving meals to students during the shutdown, even before the federal government allowed it, Burchett said.
“Our board of education decided that that dollar was going to be borne by us locally even if the state and the federal government didn’t come through with the process,” he said. “Whatever it takes, because that’s what’s best for our students.”Vaccine brings hope
When Beshear announced in December that teachers and school personnel would be at the front of the line for vaccines, it meant a chance for a more normal end to the school year.
Nearly 75 percent of Harrison County’s staff chose to sign up for the vaccine at the end of December, a time when the rate of coronavirus in Harrison County was at its highest point with average daily incidence rates above 100, Burchett said. On Jan. 20, the WEDCO Health Department set up a clinic in one of the schools and vaccinated more than 360 Harrison County employees.
“It was exciting to see that many coming in really prepared to take it because it was what, No. 1, would best protect them, but also give them the ability to feel more comfortable being back in the classroom with students,” he said.
And the teachers wanted to come back to the classroom, he said. After more than two months on the hybrid schedule, on March 15 Harrison County Schools returned to in-person instruction for all students four days a week.Return to in person
Some districts chose to phase in bringing more students back to the classroom by bringing elementary schools first and higher grades later. But Harrison County decided to bring everyone back at once.
“We just decided to rip the band aid off and just go all in,” he said. Teachers and principals knew exactly how many students to expect and communicated with parents. Though the district could not get 6 feet between students in all areas, it developed a plan to make sure students remain 6 feet apart for breakfast and lunch.
Burchett planned to visit every school in his district on the first day the two groups of students attending on alternate days merged into one.
“I’ll walk down the hallways and open classroom doors and speak to kids, teachers and staff and just welcome them back,” he said. “(It’s) going to be another first day of school for the year."