PQ Schools Prepare to Cope with Closure

Perquimans Schools administrators met Monday to provide the Board of Education an update as to plans to provide learning access and distribute meals to students while schools are closed.

Perquimans Board of Education and school administrators met in a special meeting Monday to discuss a plan of action for coping with the aftershocks from closing schools due to precautions taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Though schools statewide are closed until March 27, planning is underway to provide meals and access to technology that will facilitate learning for what may be a long time away from classrooms.

“As we plan for the specifics, let us remember why we closed the schools,” Perquimans Board of Education Chairwoman Anne White said. “We didn’t just close the schools for two weeks just to close them. We have a virus – the numbers are continuing to escalate. The deaths are continuing to escalate, so the key word should be the safety of our students, staff, faculty – everybody – in our community.”

Friday afternoon, school officials statewide had a conference call with Governor Roy Cooper. Turner said afterward, school administrators did not think school systems would close.

“The state said the CDC recommended that schools stay open and that there was no research that showed that closing schools would prevent the spread of the illness,” Turner said. “In fact, they said closing schools would have more negative impacts than we would have positive. We left Friday afternoon thinking that we’re good, schools will stay open. Saturday afternoon, everything went totally the opposite way. So that’s the way the information has been coming to us. We’re trying to adjust as quickly as information is being provided to us.”

Last week, Turner asked teachers and staff to prepare for the days to come.

“This has been difficult and a little bit stressful on staff, but we have a great group of people who are pulling together and doing what we need to do to serve our children,” she said.

Turner was cautious but realistic as the news cycle changes day to day with the latest announcement from the White House for Americans to avoid groups of more than 10 and urged older people to stay at home in a set of new guidelines designed to fight a spreading coronavirus outbreak. Many public officials are bracing for the fact that things may not return to normal any time soon.

“Everything right now – it’s changing – by the end of this meeting we might not be in school any more until August,” Turner said.

White added, “That’s the truth from what I’ve been hearing. But teachers are creative. They’ve been coming up with all kinds of creative ideas – all those virtual classrooms where students are calling in. As our teachers continue to plan, we’ll just be amazed at what we can accomplish.”

Perquimans Schools Nutrition Director Kim Cullipher said starting today (Wednesday) the school system will be able to feed students from two hubs – Hertford Grammar School and Perquimans Central School – by utilizing the drive-thru method between the hours between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Starting Thursday, plans also call for school buses to deliver meals in the community and to local churches for pick-up. Meals will be at no cost to the students

“We want as many kids to eat as possible,” Cullipher said. “Families can come and pick meals up for the children for students attending the schools. Service is first-come, first-served.”

Cullipher said the school district will be reimbursed from the national school lunch program for the costs associated with the meals.

“More kids we feed, the more reimbursement rates we can get back – we want to make sure the kids eat and that there is no cost to students,” she said.

Cullipher cautioned that because a lot of parents are still working, school planners have no idea what the meal participation rate will be, so they are aiming high at first and then adjusting to fill the need.

“I’m hoping that once we get out into the community, we’ll have better participation so we can feed more students,” she said.

Meal distribution is based on the honor system, so school administrators are placing folks who are familiar with the various communities being served at the hubs and churches so as to better assist with recognizing the families who are being served.

Board member Leary Winslow was concerned that “if this thing takes a dramatic turn for the worse, there might be a free-for-all that would clean us out so that we wouldn’t be able to feed anybody” if this program is not closely monitored with accountability as to who is picking up meals.

Cullipher said school officials will be asking each person which kids they are providing meals for. People that retrieve the meals should be parents, siblings or family members.

“That family has to have one child in our school system to receive a meal,” she said.

Chairwoman White added, “I think it is great that you are asking for names – probably going to be some abuse. It’s just the nature of the system, but if you start asking for something, then it doesn’t send a message that this is a free-for-all that lets everybody go have lunch.”

Perquimans schools Chief Technology Officer Martha Nixon said the school system has organized an internet based learning regimen so teachers can connect with students. Since internet access is not available to many places in the county, Intelliport donating its time and the means to set up different locations to provide internet access to students. State will provide money to purchase the equipment needed to provide internet accessibility.

“During a very difficult and stressful time, Intelliport’s Steve Lane is trying eliminate that digital divide for our students that he didn’t have to do,” Turner said. “I appreciate the community reaching out to the school system and saying hey, we want to provide you resources to help your kids during this very difficult time.”

School buildings can not be used for instruction during the closure period, so school officials are compiling a list of places that have wifi access – hotspots – as well as pumping up guest internet access on school property so as parking lots that would allow students to download needed classroom materials. Students should seek out school social media sites to learn more about where these hotspots will be located. And with students who prefer the paper packets, that option is available too.

“The community is coming together and that’s a wonderful thing,” White said.

Perquimans Schools Chief Academic Officer of Curriculum and Instruction Melissa Fields provided a roll-out of the school’s system plans for a home learning initiative. Teachers are providing log-in information for internet based lessons within packets that will be distributed during meal pick-up times at the schools.

School buses may be utilized to drop these packets into mailboxes at students’ homes and teachers will be following up by phone or email to make sure their students are prepared for remote learning.

Fields noted how other countries have reacted to shifting learning patterns as teachers have coped with problems associated with school closures. Google classroom and other resources will come into play to connect teachers with students.

“Lessons learned from other countries that have already been through this crisis was don’t focus so much on the technology as you do on the personal contact,” Fields said. “You’re not going to be teaching all new content to these kids, but giving them reinforcement on things that they’ve already been working on, practicing, mastering. But really what makes it work is the teacher reaching out to the students, making phone calls, sending emails – just making sure that they stay in personal communication because at this point, it’s just as much about their social/emotional learning as it is about their academic learning because they are going through a lot of uncertainty and crisis right now.”

Other takeaways from the meeting include no timetable for students to make up ACT testing needed for college admissions.

Also, Turner said the state is insisting that the school systems provide child day care for people such as first responders and medical professionals who are serving on the front lines of this crisis. Turner said without more guidance from the state, she can’t answer questions about how this would happen.

And Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order did not grant vacation days for staff and does not state that individuals will be paid if they are not working. Turner said the governor has assured state and local officials that funds are available to pay all school employees who are working even if the duties they are performing are different than their typically assigned jobs. The measure is designed to protect classified employees such child nutrition and bus drivers who won’t get a paycheck unless other work options are available such as delivering meals or cleaning buses.

“There is certainly enough work to do, so we are trying to provide those opportunities for our school system’s classified employees,” Turner said.

Turner said according to the state’s guidance, the next two weeks may be treated as optional teacher work days. However, Turner said, school systems are waiting on more guidance from Governor Cooper. Pending what Cooper says, Turner recommends keeping the next two weeks as optional teacher work days.

Turner said during this time of crisis, most staff members have been asking, “What do we need to do? We have a lot of staff members who are willing to come to work, do whatever they are asked to do.”

One staff member’s inspiring quote was, “Now is the time for us to be the hands and feet of Jesus to our community.”

Pending guidance from the state, teachers may be required to work, but would be able to work from home, Turner said. Presently, teachers may be allowed to carry their children to work, but not every employee can work from home or carry their kids to school – equity issues that the school administration will be evaluating.

Also, the state’s Department of Public Instruction is asking the General Assembly for funding that will be allocated to school systems for COVID-19 related expenses. Perquimans Schools Finance Officer Rube Blanchard said he will track such expenses including transportation, maintenance, child nutrition among other related items. Blanchard said as this state of affairs will affect sales tax receipts, that will affect the state’s allocation of funding.

And questions arose as to whether instructional days missed would count toward required students attendance benchmarks, but any decisions as to whether to waive missed time are made by the General Assembly.

Also, spring break planning is an issue that is being discussed by school leaders statewide. Turner said a majority of school systems have chosen not change spring break planning to contend with school closure.

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time spring break gets here, our teachers are probably going to need a break from everything they are having to do between now and spring break. To be quite honest, I don’t think we’ll back in school anyway at that time. So if we make this our spring break, it may be for nothing. I agree with the superintendents who are choosing to wait – we just need to wait and see what happens.”

And while schools must remain closed to instructional needs during the next two weeks, they must remain open, Turner said. State directs that local boards of education continue to meet.

Also, the state has made no decision regarding End of Grade tests. State is working with the US Department of Education on flexibility regarding testing – federal mandate. No decisions have been made regarding students’ mastery of standards, accountability measures.

Staff writer Miles Layton can be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com