Local students back in school, some online and some in person

by GEOFF FOX

Schools in Washington County and Fulton County have started the 2020-2021 school year in two different ways.

Last school year ended with students in both school districts having class via distance learning with the teachers at one location and the students at home.

For the 2020-2021 school year, Southern Fulton students have been in the classroom for two weeks now, learning in person.

Schools in Washington County started school two days ago on August 31, but students aren’t in their classrooms with teachers. They’re engaged in distance learning, with teachers given the flexibility to work from home or be in the classroom.

Last Thursday, during his daily briefing, Governor Larry Hogan gave school systems around the state the green light to safely reopen schools for students.

The governor cited an improved COVID-19 health metrics across the state as the reasoning for the ability of counties to reopen schools.

In Washington County, students who might not have easy access to a high-speed internet connection are getting help from school officials.

Principals at Hancock Elementary and Middle-Senior High School said the school system is working with internet providers to get service to those students who might need better connectivity.

Hancock Elementary

At Hancock Elementary, teachers and Principal Jennifer Scarberry Price have been working very hard to prepare for distance learning.

Scarberry Price said teachers have participated in many professional development opportunities over the summer and last week so they are prepared to deliver important and purposeful instruction.

The teachers have learned about the overarching priorities and underlying concepts when embedding social studies and science content into the English Language Arts block, and have also learned how to use various digital tools that would acts like the tools students would have had available in the classroom.

“We have all worked hard to be as competent as possible with the platforms we will be required to communicate with,” Scarberry Price said in an email.

In some cases, students might not have access to high speed internet which is almost required for distance learning.

While WCPS is working with providers to help families secure internet connections, Scarberry Price said schools know students need to hear their teachers and interact with them live for distance learning to be successful.

Scarberry Price is entering her first year as principal at Hancock Elementary and said her number one priority is to ensure all students are receiving the highest quality instruction so they are prepared to take any path in life they choose.

“My goal is to work collaboratively with staff, students, and parents to ensure Hancock students are given the opportunity to excel,” she said.

One challenge Scarberry Price thinks about more and more is how people interact with each other.

“I am very concerned that our young children see the news and think that fighting, arguing, and being mean are acceptable norms,” she said. “What I want is for our children to see and experience all forms of kindness, compassion, and empathy.”

She said they shouldn’t expect students to exhibit these behaviors if they don’t see them modeled and applied to them. Scarberry Price feels school can be a place where students learn to work with others and learn things like sharing, caring, fairness, taking turns, and helping others.

“These behaviors are the foundation of growing up healthy and productive,” Scarberry Price said.

She said Hancock is a “wonderful, small, close-knit community” she loves to work in.

“When an entire community rallies around its schools, wonderful things can be achieved,” Scarberry Price said, adding she plans to be “very involved” in the community and believes that is how to maximize her time as principal.

“The faculty and staff at Hancock Elementary are very committed to their students and community,” she said. “Together, I believe there are no limits to what we can achieve together.”

She said she’s also very much looking forward to the time when it is safe to bring students back in the schools, noting it’s quite lonely and not nearly as fun without the kids around.

“I am here to support students, staff, and parents,” Scarberry Price said. “I love being a principal and getting to know all families. This might look different during distance learning, but I don’t give up easily.”

Hancock Middle-Senior High School

Across the street at Hancock Middle-Senior High School, Amanda Mulledy is starting her first year at the helm of the school.

She said the teachers at Hancock Middle-Senior High School have also attended professional development and completed trainings on various online platforms, and modified units and lesson plans for a distance learning platform.

The teachers have examined the changes in curriculum and worked to develop solutions for the challenges faced in the spring as the school year ended via distance learning.

Prior to teachers returning, a plan was developed to ensure the safety of all staff, including maintaining social distancing and ensure proper face coverings are worn at all times.

With last school year ending via distance learning, students and teachers were asked to quickly adapt to the concept in the spring.

WCPS has taken what was gained from that experience to develop a plan that includes students attending all classes everyday virtually while continuing to provide opportunities for students to connect with teachers one-on-one or in small groups at the end of the school day for additional instruction and assistance, Mulledy said via email.

“WCPS has also developed site-specific Help Desk support for families from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday to assist with various technology-related questions,” she said.

With proper safety plans, teachers are able to work in their classrooms while delivering instruction if the choose.

As a staff, teachers at Hancock Middle-Senior High School can continue to work together to help students with various questions or needs during distance learning.

Being her first year at Hancock, Mulledy is grateful to join a wonderful staff dedicated to student success.

“As a small secondary school, we continue to face challenges in the course offerings and scheduling flexibility we can provide to our students,” she said.

However, Mulledy added, the school is committed to finding creative solutions and working with schools across the county to provide more options to students when able.

Whatever the challenges, Mulledy said Hancock Middle-Senior High School has always kept students growth and success at the forefront and will continue to do so.

“Great growth has been made in the last few years in terms of literacy skills, and we will work to see that growth continue this year,” she said.

This year the school will also continue to provide excellent instruction and opportunities for students to achieve in all classes, she said, working hard to find solutions to any obstacles that are keeping students from accessing the great instruction teachers will provide.

“We are dedicated to creating learning communities that foster a growth mind-set,” Mulledy said. “Together with our students and families, we plan to make 2020-2021 one of the best yet!”

“We look forward to continuing to connect with our strong community of learners, and see amazing success via distance learning and when we return face-to-face,” Mulledy said.

Southern Fulton School District

While students in Hancock just returned to school this week, students in Southern Fulton have been in school for two weeks now with in-person learning on a full reopen on August 19.

Dr. Tara Will, Superintendent for Southern Fulton School District, said the district had to create and submit a Health and Safety plan for both athletics and education.

Those documents had to be board approved and sent to the Pennsylvania Department of Education for approval. Will said both plans are listed on the school district’s website.

The plan included extensive cleaning, signage for social distancing, classrooms had to be reconfigured to allow for social distancing, and breakfast and lunch are served in disposable containers to avoid lines in the cafeterias.

Will said masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer were ordered in mass quantities.

Every attempt was made by the school district to follow the guidelines that were imposed by the Center for Disease Control, Department of Health and Pennsylvania Department of Education.

During the school day, students and staff are required to wear masks at all times while in school.

“This was a big feat to accomplish and have a 100% compliance rate,” Will said.

At lunch, there are only two students per table and that has forced some students to eat in classrooms.

“Our kids are great and they have adapted nicely to the changes that have occurred,” Will said.

While the kids are back in the school building, some parents could have been a little hesitant to send their kids back to school during the pandemic.

For those parents in Southern Fulton, Will said there were three options for parents to consider.

The first was live streaming, which is basically the classroom instruction live-streamed into the students home. The second was the Southern Fulton Virtual Academy which is a cyber program operated through the district. The third was cyber charter schools that are outside organizations that offer instruction to students.

On August 13, a town hall meeting was held where the district shared all the things worked on over the summer to ensure a safe and healthy environment for students returning to school.

Information from the meeting, along with parents’ questions and answers is available on the district’s website.

“This was a great opportunity for the community to participate and ask questions,” Will said. “We had several panel experts that spoke about the COVID statistics and the deaths attributed to Fulton County.”

The purpose of the meeting was to get the facts to the families so they could make informed decisions about sending their students back to school.

Will said the district has been “extremely pleased” by the cooperation of families, students, and staff during this time.

“We have the attitude that this is our new norm and we just go with it,” she said. “Kids and staff are VERY happy to be back in school.”

Looking to the school year, Will said they are remaining positive and if there is an issue with COVID in the schools, all the necessary precautions will be taken to ensure the safety and health of all students and staff.

“We have had full cooperation from parents, students, staff, and our community. It shows how strong we are as a district and together we can make great things happen,” she said.

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