Working with Dr. Kevin A. Judy, superintendent of Emanuel County Schools, we recently did a Q&A principals and teachers from Emanuel County schools on how they believe Covid-19 has impacted our school system. This Q&A with several educators provides valuable insight, straight from those who are working with our kids daily, on how we are navigating this time of uncertainty and change. Due to limited space, we couldn’t print all of the answers we received, but you will find more of their responses on our website, emanuelcountylive.com.
Q: What are some of the difficulties faced since the pandemic hit?
Brandy Donnan, TCE: Since the pandemic hit, the layout of our classrooms has changed dramatically. Students are spaced apart, all facing forward in rows. Large meeting rugs and cloth items all have been removed. Small group instruction is around one side of the table where students are not permitted to sit beside the teacher. Lines are longer and socially distanced as much as possible. Students are not allowed to work together in learning stations or play together inside the kindergarten classroom. The sharing of materials is limited and the use of disinfecting products is enhanced when items must be shared. Keeping 5- and 6-year-olds apart is a difficult task in and of itself. Students are being asked to sit at their desks and remain in the same room for most of the school day.
Greg Kennedy, ECI: There have been several difficulties that we have faced but the biggest has been dealing with absences from quarantine, symptoms, or being positive. Some students have been out days and even weeks, which makes missed work and missed instruction an issue. We have adapted and put some strategies in place to overcome these difficulties, but nothing beats in-school instruction.
Tracey Mercer, ECI: Interactions with the students are very challenging due to the necessity for social distancing and Covid precautions, creating accessible and rigorous assignments for students who are absent for an extended period of time, and the uncertainty as to when things will return to normal have all been added stressors since March. I have immersed myself in learning new technologies that enable me to interact with students through programs such as zoom, Google Meets, screencastomatic, and Google classroom. I’ve tried to keep up with classroom progress by posting daily videos, assignments, and tutorials when needed. It has been nice to be able to have virtual meetings with students who are confined to their homes. That might not have been possible if this had happened five or ten years ago. I was even able to teach from home when I was quarantined myself. Students watched me through zoom and I was able to continue instruction.
Q: What preventative protocols have you instilled within your classroom?
Brandy Donnan, TCE: All of my desks are spaced apart, in rows facing forward. Large meeting rugs and cloth items have been removed. I have three locations where students have access to hand sanitizer. All surfaces are cleaned on a daily basis. Shared items are disinfected between student use. Masks are strongly encouraged when socially distancing is not possible (small groups). Students are given the opportunity to wash their hands regularly with soap and water. Students have a cubby to house their water bottles so as to not contaminate another student’s water bottle. I also wear a mask when working with students for extended periods of time.
Lindsey Sconyers, SHS: We are able to sanitize each chromebook, calculator, desk, and other materials at the end of each class period. We (the teachers) walk around with hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, and paper towels for the students to use to sanitize each item before the next class comes in. It takes time out of our instruction, but it is worth it to help ensure that our students are safe at school. I also wear a mask when helping one on one with students, or when walking around the classrooms or in common areas around the school.
Q: Working with the youth of the community, I’m sure things have been difficult to process when looking back on how school functioned prior to the pandemic. What do you miss most about teaching prior to the pandemic hitting?
Greg Kennedy, ECI: I definitely miss the normalcy of school before the pandemic. What I miss the most about teaching is the personal relationships and smiling faces. The pandemic has made many scared to interact with each other closely. I miss “high fiving” my students as they enter my classroom or if they have success. Most of all I miss seeing smiling faces or faces full of laughter. There are some students that I’ve only seen their faces a couple of times all year. The mask makes it hard to read student expressions or responses. It seems to make discussions and/or interactions less personal.
Lindsey Sconyers, SHS: I miss the collaboration within my classroom the most. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a group of students working together to solve a complex problem. I also miss my hugs, fist bumps, and high fives between class changes.
Angela Hooks, SHS: Most of the students at SHS have been great about wearing masks, but when half of a student's face is covered, it makes it difficult to learn names and put names with faces as quickly as I could before. I now have to rely on other things to help me recognize students both in the classroom and in the halls such as height, gait, hair, voice, etc. I have always used seating charts to help learn new students, a necessity that fades once I get to know them. Now, this is used much longer than before to remember a student by where they are located in my classroom.
Q: Learning how to operate your classroom with new restrictions in place since and during the pandemic, how has this process been handled?
Janie Slater, SMS: In my ELA classroom, I miss giving students the opportunities to work with partners and in small groups. Peer editing and planning together has had to be placed on the back burner. However, it’s also encouraged using technology and thinking outside the box to tweak and maintain some of these practices in new, creative ways. For instance, we now peer edit digitally by sharing final drafts. The students can highlight and make suggestions/comments to their classmates using Google Docs.
Greg Kennedy, ECI: It has been a learning process. I have tried some things and then realized that there may be a better way to do it. It is sort of like anything new in life, you have to try and then make adaptations accordingly. I am fortunate to work with a great group of people who are supportive and willing to help. We are able to bounce ideas off of each other and discuss what works and what doesn’t. It has also been helpful that the students have been responsive and willing to adapt to the changes.
Stephanie Tripplet, Early Learning Center: Some challenges back in March and now are supplying technology, using technology in homes, and me trying to learn all these ways to use technology. I am thankful for my work family because we all generate ideas together and help each other with our weaknesses.
Q: During last year’s closing of schools, what were some challenges faced when working with parents to have schoolwork completed at-home? What are some things you learned during this process that you have improved upon for this year?
Greg Kennedy, ECI: This was a challenging time because it was new to everyone. The biggest challenge was trying to get the work to the students. We gave them a choice between paperwork or virtual work. We were able to set up a day for parents to come pick up their child's paperwork. This was set up as a drive thru. The staff at ECI really worked great together to make an efficient process. The virtual work was a little tougher because we were dependent on the parents and students to check their emails or Google Classroom to complete their work. Previous to the shut down, our Administration had given us training in Google Classroom so this came in handy. Again, the virtual learning was still new to us so we learned as we experienced the process. This experience has made me learn more about the use and implementation of technology and now I am more comfortable with the virtual process.
Angela Hooks, SHS: It was difficult during last year's closure (for both teachers and students) to rely on technology for instruction. Since that time, we have all become well versed in Zoom, Google Meets, and Google Classroom (if we were not well versed before) to present instruction and assignments. We are much better prepared now than we were last year if there is another closure to meet the instructional needs of our students.
Q: From a teacher’s standpoint, what is a topic you feel should be addressed with parents and others in the community?
Brandy Donnan, TCE: If a teacher requests your support at home, it is essential that you support the learning at home. Educators are trying to fill gaps, enhance learning, and provide support to produce life-long learners. We would love to be able to provide everything our students need, but sometimes extra support is needed.
Lindsey Sconyers, SHS: Understanding and Grace. It is vital to the success of our students that the parents and teachers operate on the same page. Without Understanding and Grace from all parties our students will not have the best opportunity to be successful.
Stephanie Tripplet, Early Learning Center: Learning these ways to use technology is definitely something I have been working on myself. Patience and understanding is the main thing we all need to reiterate. This applies to parents, students, and teachers. We are all facing these uncertainties and are somewhat playing it by ear. These children should be our priority, and parents, teachers, and communities have to come together in order to benefit them and their education.
Q: What is something you feel is overlooked but needs to be brought to the attention of the community?
Janie Slater, SMS: It’s important to always remember I’m not just here to deliver content (teach the subject), but to be a positive influencer, mentor, encourager, and a coach to each and every student on my rosters. They all matter.
Tracey Mercer, ECI: I wish people in the community could understand how well students have adapted to the challenges of the last year. In the face of no prom, no baseball season, a delayed graduation, limited attendance at sporting events, canceled conventions, virtual competitions, and in many cases, truncated schedules for all events, they have continued to rise above and give their best effort while keeping, for the most part, positive attitudes and optimism for the future.
Angela Hooks, SHS: The community should know that SHS teachers work tirelessly to provide high levels of instruction to our students. With the new challenges facing education, we are working hard to maintain both their high school experience as well as to provide them with instruction in new ways to be sure they get what they need to succeed.
Q: As a principal, what difficulties have you faced when operating daily functions of learning for both in-person and virtual education?
Valorie Watkins, Principal, SES: As principal, I love being in classrooms on a daily basis. It has been difficult to limit my visit times to under 10 minutes in each classroom. I am now conscious of where I stand, making sure I am wearing a mask and staying socially distanced while visiting classrooms. I do not get to participate in the lessons as much as I used to when I visit classrooms. Of course, I miss all my virtual students. I was able to meet most of the virtual parents during our Virtual Parent Orientations earlier in the school year. However, many of our third graders I have not met in person. I have been able to join in on some of the Zoom meetings set up by the virtual teacher. We have a great team of teachers working with our students on Edgenuity. Initially, we had some difficulty understanding the pacing of the program and the amount of time students should be on daily.
Robbie Warnock, Principal, TCE: So much of what I try to do as a principal involves making sure that my students and teachers all have access to the materials they need to learn and teach. When I have all of my students on campus, I can get them what they need relatively easily. If a student needs paper or pencil, we can make that happen in seconds. If a teacher needs a new resource, I have never been unable to get it. Our district level leadership is awesome in providing that freedom to principals. The challenges now lie in the fact that we are basically running two public school settings, a face-to-face one and a virtual academy. The virtual academy is our newest offering which allows students the ability to maintain their studies from home. We are able to provide our virtual students with technology and teachers to provide remote assistance, but the comparison is a lot like watching someone cook or repair something on YouTube and doing it yourself, or having that expert sitting right across from you. My teachers and I want our virtual students to have all those benefits of being face-to-face, and that is our main struggle.
Q: What have been some concerns faced since the pandemic hit and how have any obstacles been overcame?
Valorie Watkins, Principal, SES: The major concern has been the safety of all students and employees. We are overcoming our safety concern by reminding everyone to follow all guidelines and protocols set by our board of education. I announce each morning our expectations to help stop the spread of germs. We review the 3Ws.
1. Wear your mask (we strongly encourage)
2. Watch your distance (6ft. apart)
3. Wash your hands (regularly with soap and water)
Robbie Warnock, Principal, TCE: My most immediate concern has been physical safely. I have several people in my personal life who are in the at-risk demographics for Covid as do many of my staff and students. I have total confidence in my teachers’ ability to get their jobs done, but so much of my worry has been geared toward the safety aspect. Schools fall fairly in the middle of the information chain, so our reaction time has to be pretty fast when we get new information regarding health policies or procedures. Almost every single aspect of the education calling is based on precedence. How did we handle this last time? Covid-19 is new, so we are literally making these decisions for the first time. In my personal situation, I have been blessed with a superintendent and school board who are totally dedicated to everyone’s personal safety. Even before the wave crested, they were taking steps to get the equipment and supplies we need for everyone’s health.
Anetria Edenfield, Principal, ECI: Curriculum! – Keeping students on track. As educators we want to ensure all students are college/career ready. Any day instruction is missed plays a huge part in their overall academic achievement.
Q: Prior to the pandemic hitting, what do you miss most about how schools were operated?
Robbie Warnock, Principal, TCE: This one is easy, and it is what we all miss. Emanuel County Schools is not a thing or a set of buildings, it is a family. Just like everyone else, I am missing those chances to see the whole family. TCE has a tradition of being an open campus, stakeholders have always been on campus. We have a huge group of volunteers and community members who can’t come see us now, and I miss that.
Denise Warnock, Principal, SHS: Interactions between students and adults, students and students, and adult and adults are what we missed most. Though 85% of our students are back in the building, we look forward to the day they all return.
Q: When things are dark, it’s hard to see the positive amongst the odds faced. What are some highlights that you are proud to have seen accomplished within your school by staff and students?
Robbie Warnock, Principal, TCE: “You will never get elementary students to social distance themselves!” I wish I could share the videos of lines of students with their arms stretched out as they “zombie shuffle” down the hall, staying just far enough apart. I see my TCE staff leaping into new technology and teaching styles to better serve our students. Since this whole situation started, none of your students’ teachers have asked me “Why are we doing this?” Every question is “How can I make this happen for my kids?” That is powerful.
Denise Warnock, Principal, SHS: Looking back on 2019-2020, we are proud that though delayed, we were able to provide our seniors and their parents with a face-to-face graduation with as traditional a format as we possible. Pulling that off required parents, faculty, staff, and community members coming together to recognize and celebrate our students achieving the apex of their K-12 educational experience. Our athletic staff and student athletes are to be applauded for their response and adherence to state and local recommendations and GHSA mandates so that on the extra-curricular front we could restore some activity and routine to the lives of the young people we serve. The resiliency of our faculty and staff has been an outstanding highpoint. Most are both educators and parents and they have had to respond to the pandemic from different perspectives. They have been like the bamboo plant, able to bend without breaking.
Valorie Watkins, Principal, SES: I am proud of the staff being positive. They know our positivity in the school starts with them in the classroom. They have really embraced the many changes with a smile. Our teachers have worked diligently to become familiar with the many facets of technology. For many, it has been a fast learning curve in order to make sure our students are technology savvy. We have one to one Chromebook correspondence, if it became necessary each student would be able to take a Chromebook home and students could continue instruction. I have been extremely proud of our students for their fortitude and endurance. They have jumped right on board following the 3Ws. The majority of our students wear a face mask, stay socially distanced when possible, and wash their hands or use hand sanitizers on a regular basis throughout the school day. SES students are very resilient!
Q: Let’s talk a bit on virtual learning. How has this process been? Are students and their parents opting more toward virtual?
Valorie Watkins, Principal, SES: Virtual learning has been a learning process for us. As with anything new, we had to work out some of the kinks. For instance, determining how we could help students and families that did not have internet or a good connection. With the assistance of our district technology department, it was worked out and students were able to connect. Most of our virtual students’ parents decided to send them back after the 1st nine weeks. We started out with approximately 200 students being virtual. Starting the 3rd nine weeks we will have approximately 50 virtual students.
Anetria Edenfield, Principal, ECI: The process was the hardest to get down. We have bumps and bruises to start with, but after a few weeks, we developed procedures and protocols that helped make the process easier for teachers and students. At the beginning our numbers were high. But, since second semester started we have seen a decline in those requesting virtual. We have the majority of our students returning to face-to-face instruction.
Q: What preventive protocols have you instilled within your school as a combative attempt against the spread of Covid-19?
Valorie Watkins, Principal, SES: Our students are not changing classes. Students are not eating in the cafeteria for breakfast or lunch. Our students are able to pick up a quick breakfast and head on to the classroom. Students go to the lunchroom to pick up a tray and return to the classroom to eat. We no longer have face-to-face faculty meetings. We conduct Zoom faculty meetings. Our ventilation system has been revamped throughout the school. Since our water fountains are not in use, we have water filling stations down each hall and in the lunchroom. Hand sanitizers located throughout the building. Temperature checks are administered each morning for all students and staff. Every visitor’s temperature is checked as they enter the office. Custodians and teachers are disinfecting classrooms throughout the day on a regular basis. Our activity teachers are spraying after each class. Our custodians are wiping down walls and door handles during the day. They are spraying each classroom at the end of each day.
Anetria Edenfield, Principal, ECI: Seating arrangements, how we transition between classes, signs and stickers reminding students to socially distance, providing hand sanitizer, constant verbal reminders, etc.
Q: Lastly, please take the time to address any topic of conversation that has not been addressed:
Robbie Warnock, Principal, TCE: Folks, please just bear with us as we navigate these uncertain seas. There may be times where, as a school and system, we have to react quickly to news we have just received. Also, keep your students’ teachers and our superintendent and school board members in your thoughts. I have been in the meetings and have seen just how hard they are working for us. Please, everyone - do your best to stay safe, and I hope to see you soon!
Denise Warnock, Principal, SHS: Students and teachers alike were so happy to return this past July. We have had very little discipline this school year and I would like to believe a new appreciation for the opportunity to attend school resulted from last year’s school closure. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to have our building’s classrooms, hallways, gymnasiums, and practice fields alive with Swainsboro High School Tigers.
Valorie Watkins, Principal, SES: SES staff are HEROES. I would like to say “Thank You!” Our teachers and support staff have taken on this year willing to do all they could for the safety of all. Since day one, we were all a little weary because of the unknowns of the coming year. Everyone took on the challenge of this year with a positive attitude. The staff has made some sacrifices that have really brought us closer together, we all had to step up. I am proud and privileged to work alongside such an awesome family of educators. I would also like to thank our parents for their supportive role. They have trusted us to take care of your children. Our parents have supported us in the many changes we have set in this school year. Thank you to our community for the many donations. We are thankful for your love and support of SES!