'A chance to pause': CCS administrators talk COVID-19 adaptations, moving forward

Posted 6/30/21

Over the last 15 months, schools across the country faced myriad challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic: moving learning online, reaching students without internet and implementing safety protocol …

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'A chance to pause': CCS administrators talk COVID-19 adaptations, moving forward

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Over the last 15 months, schools across the country faced myriad challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic: moving learning online, reaching students without internet and implementing safety protocol to return in-person.

In Chatham County Schools, students returned to in-person learning starting in October, with daily in-person learning under Plan A becoming available in April. As was the case in other districts, students, parents and teachers faced increased stress and burnout, but they adapted, too.

As CCS begins its dramatically expanded summer programming to address potential COVID-19 learning loss, the News + Record spoke with three CCS administrators well-versed in how the district made a year of COVID-19 learning happen: Chris Poston, executive director of elementary and middle grades education; Kelly Batten, executive director of secondary education and Emma Braaten, executive director for technology and digital teaching and learning.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

To start, I’d love to just hear from each of you a little bit more specifically about what your role typically entails, and then what that role looked like for you adapting to remote learning?

Chris Poston: As far as K-8 director and my role as it evolved a little bit during the pandemic, I think there was a certain focus, since we were at home, on how to make sure that expectation was really clear for schools, teachers and principals. That was trying to bring clarity to what this new frame of learning would look like for schools and for teachers and for families and for kids. That was a piece that gave us an opportunity to really collaborate — we spent a lot of time doing some one pagers of expectations for at-home learning, expectations for our teaching and being able to support that.

I think we had an opportunity to communicate more, to bring clarity to some of our instructional priorities. And also, we met more because we had Zoom and we had a little more flexibility, so that really strengthened our communication between central services and schools. We were able to say, ‘OK, let’s really tease this out. Let’s think about what we want at-home learning to look like for a kindergartner, for a 6th grader, a 12th grader. And so we just had an opportunity to bring clarity around some of those learning goals. It wasn’t perfect at every side, but it gave us an opportunity to only tease out some things as far as instruction is concerned.

Kelly Batten: I was enjoying listening to Chris describe the journey, because it’s definitely a lot of what we experienced at the high school. Something that came to mind just listening to Chris — far less time was spent in the school building amongst all of us. I mean, I think that had been a hallmark of our role, to be on the campuses engaged with teachers, engaged with principals. So particularly during the stretch where we were virtual learning and everyone at home, what I felt was, all of the time that we used to have for being on campus, we were using to engage directly with the principals, engage directly with the teachers. As the year evolved, with the high school principals, we began touching base each week, we began having virtual office hours for different content groups and drop-in sessions for teachers.

In a lot of ways, it was a lot of social emotional support, even for teachers, just that safe space, and then that had not really been a part of what we normally did. But it became an enjoyable part — that camaraderie among staff, so I think in a lot of ways, it did draw people closer. It’ll be a busy summer, so in some ways, it doesn’t feel like it’s ended because of the summer programming. But I think that’s been the biggest role change — just these connections with the people that we want to serve. We want to serve and support them. And albeit we had to do it virtually this year, but through the technology we had available, we maximized it.

Emma Braaten: I was new to Chatham for the 2020 school year, I came March of 2020. It feels like five years, but it also feels like just yesterday that I showed up. It was an opportunity for a lot of collaboration among our senior leadership team and our central office team, a lot of opportunities to learn and for new growth, especially the programming and planning and implementing side of things. Especially significant, I think, for our teachers and our schools and our families, was understanding that culture and community of collaboration, why it’s so critical. So we have offered professional development for teachers so that they’ve been able to learn new skills, new digital platforms. We’ve engaged with our parents in previous years, but really understanding fully now why this matters is because of what we did this past year. We saw that teams of teachers came together to help support each other, and collaborated to design lessons to support students that they may not have been able to reach in various ways. So we really saw that take off and knowing that individual side of what the students bring really matters. It’s not just about (grades), it’s also about who they are and how to help them support them where they are.

We also saw exponential growth in the platforms that have been used and how they’re being used. So where we had a tool that would allow us to record teachers and students as they were annotating a website or some piece of digital content, we just saw that go from maybe 3,500 recordings a semester to over 50,000 recordings a semester.

What do you view as being one of the biggest challenges that you faced, and how did you respond in the face of that challenge?

Braaten: I would say holistically, we were asked to make a new type of way that students learn in a week or two. Then we had a summer to regroup and to put new plans in action, but really to, in the face of kind of the unknown, to launch a new model for how students and teachers were going to engage in instruction and learning. That really forced us outside of what some people might have been comfortable with, it made us kind of be innovative with what we had, recognize and pull those strategies that we knew were good, and how we can translate them into the remote and hybrid world. How do we make sure that students have what they need at home as much as they have it here at school?

Poston: I agree with that. One challenge that many of our schools face is trying to make sure that we are able to engage students who are struggling with technology or childcare at home or taking care of siblings. Doing Virtual Academy and remote learning, just making sure that each kid has access to learning. So did that happen through a phone call or a packet that was delivered on the doorstep? Or did that happen through a Zoom lesson or a Screencastify that was pre-recorded? It just worked differently for every family. But at the end of the day, we had to ensure that each kid had the opportunity to learn and grow.

Batten: It was not perfect for every student, every parent or every teacher. But I’m just amazed that we had generations — I guess all of us on this call, we had snow days, as kids, we had, you know, the air conditioning doesn’t work, send everybody home. And here we were, to transition to, ‘We’re going to have school this year, in spite of any circumstance.’ Now going forward, I’ve warned my own kids to say bye to snow days. Because we’ve got a method where school gets to happen 24/7, 365. It is unfortunate that it took a global pandemic to put so many school systems to make the push, but that’s amazing. It really is a celebration of the staff, and in particular the students, to make this transition during this year.

Speaking to some of those adaptations that you all put in place or changes that were made, do any kind of come to mind that you think will stay in place, or that you are hopeful will stay in place moving forward?

Braaten: Something that was highlighted so clearly for everyone was, how do we engage students? When students aren’t engaged during remote learning, it’s pretty obvious. There’s a difference to me between a student being compliant and being engaged. I think people are really seeing that illuminated. I’m excited about how we can move forward with people’s attention and really clamoring for helping us engage students. For me, in the digital learning world, I am looking toward the new standards that we have for digital learning for students that the state adopted, I think, a year and a half ago, that we will really be launching hardcore in the fall. And that’s talking about students who are empowered learners, they’re digital citizens, they’re knowledge constructors, they’re designers, they’re global collaborators. Really, those are the types of things that we’ve asked our students many times to do this past year and I would love to see that continue as we come back to the more traditional face-to-face every day of the week learning in the classroom.

Batten: We do think something that should stick is this flexibility for students. The flexibility for how they can participate, how they can earn credit. I do hope that sticks — it looks like it will because it already existed for high schools through the North Carolina Virtual School.

Poston: Our teachers, it was not uncommon, even last year, during virtual summer camp, to look at their schedules and see them Zooming at 6 p.m. Just having that flexibility to get in contact with kids. So I feel like we walked away with just more opportunity to engage kids and families. I think a lot of schools did virtual paint nights, where they were able to sit home with a canvas and some paint and kids were able to paint and families are able to do an activity together in the comfort of their own homes. And I think some families were able to participate who may not have been able to come into the school building. I think the flexibility of being able to do some things — host meaning virtually, host activities virtually, tutor virtually, really has, hopefully, changed the landscape of education in our society.

Braaten: Just to tack onto that, Chris, we often see in the upper grades — middle school and up — that the involvement with parents and families just declines rapidly. What we saw this year was that opportunity for families to engage in different ways at different times, in different spaces. We were literally in people’s homes, right? You couldn’t distinguish school from home for a very long time this past year. And so families got to see what it was like to be a student, got to hear the teachers in their classrooms from Zoom. And so you know it would be awesome to continue to see that level of parent engagement continue in that positive way.

Ms. Braaten, I’m curious specifically about the technology piece. In my conversations with parents and students and teachers, for every time that I heard people say they were burnt out from remote learning, I also heard a lot of excitement about some of the increased technologies that were available this year. How are you thinking about that and preparing for this reality where maybe those things aren’t necessary to have school, but can still enhance different aspects of learning?

Braaten: So oftentimes Zoom would be the replacement, it’d be the substitution, it would just help us deal connect to each other. But are there ways that we could continue to use Zoom to create those small groups, to bring in other people from across the school or the district? And so when we align with our technology frameworks, we’re really pushing the envelope with what we think that our teachers can do and their instruction, and what our students can do in their learning. There’s some research science behind the stages of adoption of new things. And so a lot of our teachers were aware, they had built some comfortability with what they were using in their classrooms, we had done the trainings, the professional learning, but this was really a big chance for people to take it to all the way to the top and adopt what they fully needed to do in their classrooms, and then to start to advocate for that. Obviously, not perfect — some of it was more about surviving than thriving — but I think we have seen quite a few success stories that we can carry forward and capitalize on those technology platforms that we’ve already invested in, and make sure we’re using them really to the maximum for what we can do with our students.

I’d love to hear from you all about a moment or story that stands out in your mind from over the past year-plus that you are particularly proud of.

Poston: The thing that stands out the most is just collaboration among our principals. We were able to just have some just rich conversation about how to support students, how to engage, how to make some changes in instruction, which then led us to think about grading and how you know how to assess work. We were able to have some really thoughtful conversations that were just real child-centered — it’s about the student and his or her individual family.

I think the pandemic gave us a chance to pause and to make sure that education is working for all of our kids. Sometimes we, through no fault of anyone, we don’t have an opportunity to adjust like we need to make sure it’s working for everyone.

Batten: Given the timing of this conversation, one thing I’d lift up as a celebration, we’ve come full circle, and our class of 2021 was able to have an in-person graduation. That was very important to the students and the families, so we’re so pleased that has been able to happen.

A second one, which, you know, just in general, would not be seen from the outside, but as the year wore on, and for many students, whether they had elected to work more, or they were through pulling back from school, we launched a collaborative project with our social workers, our school psychologists and then some of our 9th grade and 10th grade high school teachers. We were able to have small teams of students participate in motivational interviewing with this team. What that led to was for the students that were participating, they were able to turn it around academically. The students were definitely excited about that as an opportunity and the participating teachers had great things to say. So that whole partnership really was born out of the necessity of wanting to support the students and so I’m really glad that we’ll be able to continue that when we get into the fall.

Braaten: I would echo both what Chris and Kelly have said. For me, having this be my first year in Chatham, I accepted the job knowing that Chatham was a great place to work, but then really got to see it in action.

We lost positions this year with our superintendent change and teachers leaving and new folks coming in — just a lot of transitions have happened and people have just rolled with it and rolled up their sleeves to make things happen, because that’s what it took. Whether it was big or small, we saw people stepping up and helping each other out. When we first had students come back, we saw principals from another school that first day at another school site so that they could be part of that onboarding or bringing in students for the first time. And it was just really exciting to see that teamwork, that care for each other that I feel really was a big part of how we survived this year.

What do you think will be important to focus on, or keep focusing on moving forward, specifically when thinking about hopefully getting back to five days of in-person learning in the fall?

Batten: One thing that I’ll say we emphasize, specific to high schools, is assessment for learning. So often, I think people think about the standardized tests and the final exams, which could be an assessment of learning, but really keeping our focus on assessment for learning. So having some common assessments, formative assessments, quick check-ins and giving that kind of progress check to students and families, and then among teachers sharing that information. We see that as a powerful tool to be able to help students when they re-engage with school in the fall.

The other thing with that is just re-igniting all of our opportunities for students. So if we think about so many of the clubs, the sports, you know, the extracurricular pieces that are such an integral part of all schools — we adapted all the ones that we could this year, but we’re very excited for students to be able to re-engage, to re-gather and just reconnect with all of those things that are so important, socially, so important to their own personal development.

Braaten: This doesn’t necessarily fall into the digital teaching and learning or technology aspect of things, but I would say one of the things that I’m conscious of as we’re planning for professional development, planning for what next year looks like, is being really sensitive and aware of our burnout and where people are right now. They’ve come out of a really hard year.

So taking the summer to rest and relax, even though there’s summer school and other things going on, but really being mindful of what that is for our teachers and for our principals and what we expect of them next year. I think we’ve really raised the bar in a lot of ways because we know what we can do. We’ve seen it, we put it into place, put it into action — but also knowing that there are places where people have reached their limits.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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