Chatham County Schools utilizing meals, technology to stay in touch with students while separated due to COVID-19

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/23/20

Through the first week of public schools being closed because of the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, districts around North Carolina work to adjust to a nearly-unprecedented situation. Now that the “break” from in-person teaching has been extended to May 15, teachers and administrators across Chatham County have been trying to find a rhythm.

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Chatham County Schools utilizing meals, technology to stay in touch with students while separated due to COVID-19

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Posted

PITTSBORO — Through the first week of public schools being closed because of the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, districts around North Carolina work to adjust to a nearly-unprecedented situation.

Now that the “break” from in-person teaching has been extended to May 15, teachers and administrators across Chatham County have been trying to find a rhythm.

Teachers across the county have been teaching their students via webcam, email and other digital resources, and the district has set up an “at-home learning” site with pooled resources.

“They have been as hands on as possible,” Valencia Toomer, principal of Horton Middle School in Pittsboro, said about her staff.

Horton has nearly 450 students from 5th to 8th grade, all children who still need to learn and grow academically even though they’re not at the campus just outside downtown Pittsboro. While some students and their families have been able to make it to campus to pick up instructional packets, some haven’t.

So on Monday, administrators and other staff hopped on bus routes to deliver those packets to kids.

“We let them know that we’re coming,” Toomer said. “What we’ve noticed is that the students that were unable to pick up the packets are some of our most at-risk kids. So we need to meet kids where they are, in this case out of the building.”

She added that the school will also be taking its “fuel-up” food packets to some of those homes as well. That’s just one part of a statewide effort to provide meals to students who rely their schools serving breakfast and lunch during the school week.

Gov. Roy Cooper said during a Monday afternoon press conference that public school systems across N.C. have served more than 1 million meals in the past week. According to Chatham County Schools Public Relations Coordinator John McCann, the district served 9,384 breakfasts and lunches from Tuesday to Friday last week — growing from 305 on Tuesday to 4,676 on Friday. Additionally, the schools are beginning to serve weekend meals on Friday, and the district’s website will post updated locations and mobile sites.

“The turnout grew and grew each day,” McCann said. “Families are inconvenienced. We understand that. We’re glad to fill in some gaps.”

Jennifer Özkurt, CCS’ school nutrition director, added, “Every day, we’re doing more and more to increase our reach.”

That reach extends beyond food for many educators, Toomer said. Teachers at Horton have daily office hours for students to get in contact, and Toomer herself has a weekly staff meeting, just like they do when classes are in session.

But the reality now is that class is “in session,” even though the building is closed to students and will be for at least another month and a half. That leaves teachers worried, Toomer said, and wanting to do more to stay in touch. She said Horton staff is planning to write “thinking of you” cards to students and drive around neighborhoods to stay hello.

“School is one of the safe spaces for kids,” she said. “We worry about kids if they’re not in the building — we wonder if they’re eating, we wonder about their social-emotional needs. This is the reason we got into education, for the kids.

“We’re teachers at heart. Everybody wants to do what they can to make sure they reach the kids. Right now with the kids being at home, the teachers are doing as much prepping on the front end so they can get works to students as much as possible.”

It’s important, Toomer added, to continue that relationship-building between students and staff as if the bell was still ringing and teachers were teaching students face-to-face.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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