In this exclusive interview, Chatham County Schools Superintendent Derrick Jordan discusses the current plans surrounding the reopening of Chatham County Schools. Currently, no statewide strategy has …
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In this exclusive interview, Chatham County Schools Superintendent Derrick Jordan discusses the current plans surrounding the reopening of Chatham County Schools. Currently, no statewide strategy has been announced, but Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday his administration would release plans soon. In this Q&A, the News + Record talked with the superintendent about potential plans, remote learning, and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NEWS + RECORD: Governor Cooper announced this week that his administration would be announcing a statewide directive for reopening soon and encouraged administrators to continue working on safe plans for reopening. This is obviously a really complicated issue with lots of moving pieces. Could you share with us what Chatham County Schools current plan for schools to restart is, whether that’s on an August 17 date or another date?
SUPERINTENDENT DERRICK JORDAN: I would say first, there is no concrete plan. As you noted, the governor has directed the public officials to prepare for all three of the options that have been presented. Option A, which people probably see more as a return to normal, though I don’t think we’ll ever return to normal again. And Plan B is a plan that would allow some face to face but with greatly reduced density — no greater than 50% of maximum occupancy is the number that has been used, and then option C, which we have just experienced from March to June, will be virtual.
In our efforts to prepare for all of those we’ve convened a group of folks in our school district whose job it is to join alongside of me in digesting all of the information that’s coming from the state in the way of those documents that we received from the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Department of Public Instruction. We are also working alongside our local public health officials to make some determination around what options A, B and C look like for us.
At this point, what I feel comfortable with saying is that we are soliciting input from our stakeholders by virtue of surveys and we’ve just completed some focus groups where we are desiring to get insights into one people’s comfort level with returning to school. To the remote learning piece of this, what we know is that folks had to pivot very quickly. And as is the case with anything there were some folks who appreciated the pivot and walked away with some positive feedback. And then there are others who had a not so good experience. Our desire, obviously, is to make some determinations about what we did well, and what we need to improve. And our next survey will be specifically around Plan B. Our goal is to gather people’s thoughts on an A day, B day or alternating weeks or basically the state gave us six options within Plan B to contemplate.
And so we will be soliciting our stakeholders input on some of those options, the ones that we know that we have the capacity to do — some of those options I think might be a bit of a challenge when you have the rubber meet the road, particularly with the transportation piece of it.
What have you all learned from the springs remote learning experience? And what does potentially using remote learning in the future school year look like, particularly with Chatham sometimes unreliable broadband services?
I think that sometimes people conflate the idea of remote learning with virtual learning, and there are two very distinct pieces of that because the broadband is problematic. And for those students who don’t have reliable access to broadband, how they receive their at-home learning is certainly going to be different from those who have full access to say Zoom or other platforms.
I think that we have learned a lot as a result of this work, but I’ll first begin by saying that virtual learning certainly is not new to all teachers, and that is the case with any instructional delivery method. I think that some of the takeaways that come to mind right away, as we’ve discussed this ad nauseum, are that we need more consistent scheduling. And I want to just note this in particular, because I think some folks have lost sight of this — just as our students and families have inconsistent broadband, that is the case for employees. And so having teachers to deliver virtual learning or at home learning, period can be a bit of a challenge, depending on what the employee’s access to resources is.
Folks have probably also lost sight of the fact that these teachers who were front-line in trying to pivot and deliver and home learning, many of them also had children of their own, so they had to figure out how to deliver instruction for others, while also delivering instruction for their own and or figuring out the childcare piece of that.
But we’re focusing on more consistent scheduling, trying to figure out how we get our arts in, how we get physical education in, how we balance the fact that virtual learning in moderation is generally going to be positive, but we don’t want to overdo it. We know what the research says about screen time. And so realizing that in the confines of a school day, we’re able to do a lot more face to face, and break up the monotony, if you will, then we are able to do via recordings, via packets or via some type of synchronous learning platform.
We heard loudly and clearly that our students had feelings of isolation, and we know that the social emotional piece is huge, even in normal circumstances and so now certainly there’s the potential for students to have increases in feelings of isolations and yearning for a desire to engage with their friends and with their teachers. So we learned and heard loudly and clearly that our folks would like to see more opportunities for engagement.
We also learned that what works for the classroom very well may not work virtually, for students what stimulates or excites a student face to face very well may not stimulate or excite students while they are away from us. So that is certainly something also for us to grapple with.
We heard that students can have lost motivation and were no longer interested, particularly when some of the grading decisions were made statewide. And we realized that the accountability piece is a necessary component of this. And I think that everybody will have the benefit of hindsight moving forward, and we’ll be better able to put some time in place. I think that, one, as I said earlier, this is my first pandemic, the same is the case for so many others.
And what we know is that we were up against the time clock, knowing that June was quickly approaching. And so, rather than critique I’m of the mindset that we need to zero in on making sure that we acknowledge that there was a difficult set of circumstances that folks were up against and now we have the opportunity, perhaps, to right some of those things that we thought may have been wrong and to improve on those things that were not right at the level that we would have preferred them to be.
We know that learning gaps and the “summer soon” already typical of the summer off months from school have certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic. How is the school system planning to catch students up and provide support mechanisms for students negatively impacted by the disparities created by remote and alternative learning solutions?
The state is requiring all school districts to engage in what they have termed as “Jump Start.” That is designed to help fill gaps either through the summer or in the fall, or both. And with there being so many unknowns, folks are still kind of chomping at the bit to plan for for the fall. They’ll need to be curriculum compacting, where we kind of backwards map with the goal of filling the gaps in a way that hopefully ensures that we can keep students able to continue moving in a forward direction.
We’re going to have to zero in on formative assessments in a more targeted way, so that we can more appropriately gauge at various points throughout the school year, where the holes are. Formative assessments certainly are not new to us and I know that I have my own opinions on the nature of testing, but a formative assessment is part and parcel to instruction. It’s a necessary part of diagnosing where things are so that we can chart a course towards making sure that they are ultimately accessing the standards and are making progress from one standard to the next.
If I had to summarize I would say that the biggest pieces of the puzzle in terms of filling gaps will obviously be adjusting curriculum in such a way that we are able to ensure that the pieces are tied together appropriately, assessing in a way that will help us stay ahead of the gaps and then planning and responding in a cohesive way that will allow us to provide supports for students.
In a typical school year, many teacher and instructional contracts are decided at the time that COVID-19 really started causing havoc this year. How is CCS that for the coming school year in terms of personnel?
We are continuing our normal approach in that we are having personnel meetings in the summer where the board is committed to having more meetings to bring people on board.
Good news — we have applicants who are applying and interviews are occurring and hiring recommendations are being made. We are certainly optimistic that we will be able to do those things that are necessary for the opening of the school year. Now, what we don’t fully know is what will be the outcome of the ultimate decision, meaning we don’t know how many folks will ultimately decide that due to health concerns or due to them being in high risk categories that they are unable or unwilling to return to work. We are proactively engaging with our employees with the hope of being able to plan accordingly. But the simple answer to your question is that hiring is taking place, certainly a little bit differently than it would otherwise. But we are absolutely excited that even in the midst of the pandemic, there are folks who are applying for positions and are being hired.
It’s also worth mentioning that even with all of the stress of this pandemic, our normal work is still continuing. I don’t know that people have really zeroed in on that. It’s kind of a double load in that we have to do the normal business and prepare or engage in business that we have not yet experienced — it has been overwhelming. And still, we move on and we have to because ultimately the kids count on us.
Knowing there haven’t been many decisions made yet regarding sports and extracurricular activities, what kind of factors are you personally looking for in order to feel good about the prep for fall sports starting up?
I think probably four parts: I’m looking to make sure that we appropriately educate our students, our staff, our parents, guardians.
I think that we want to make sure that at whatever point we are able to start re-engaging, we want to guarantee that there are screening processes that are in place and practice social distancing appropriately. We are certainly always bound by public health requirements related to cleaning, but we have new requirements and we want to make absolutely sure that we are availing ourselves of those requirements and actualizing those requirements in an appropriate way.
Ultimately, safety is the top priority. I know that people think that educators know everything, but we know education, and we don’t know public health and so we have to lean on our local and state and federal public health officials to tell us what we should be doing in order to ensure, to the extent possible, the safety and well being of our staff when they and visitors when they’re under our charge.
As much as it seems simplistic, it’s not as quite complicated, it’s again, a work in progress. But the education piece is going to be critically important in making sure that we social distance in an appropriate way, making sure that we are clean and making sure that we also screen such that those people who are coming to campuses with any kind of sickness or any kinds of symptoms that we indicate to them, that we will need to have them return home and seek medical advice. And you’ll hear from us, regardless of what plan ultimately the state enacts, we’re going to encourage folks who are sick and or have any of those symptoms to not come to work, school or practice.
In regards to that, for students and for teachers, are there plans to update attendance and work policies to adjust for any unexpected sick days?
Yes, and both will require state officials to weigh in on. For example, many of the attendance requirements related to students and employees are dictated by state law or policy, and then what we have at the local level are policies and regulations that are operationalized within those frameworks. And so there will absolutely be the need for some adjustments. As an example, and we’ve heard this over and over and over, and again, it’s a simple thing, is perfect attendance awards. You know, I’m amazed by the number of people who are definitely really engaged in the notion of the perfect attendance award. We obviously want good, solid, perfect attendance for students and employees, but we don’t want them to forgo their safety and well being and then of others to maintain perfect attendance. That’s a small example, but there are many other examples that I could proffer that would clearly require some change in law or policy.
Can you address the school’s budget position, particularly in regard to new facilities, as well as any updates you can give on the status of those new school facilities?
This is a prime example that the work must go on even during the pandemic. So Chatham Grove, which is our newest elementary school, we have a certificate of occupancy. They are in the process of outfitting it with all of the necessary furniture and resources and we are on track as of today — I know that can change tomorrow, but we’re on track with opening that in August. Seaforth High School is also on track — the last report I saw earlier this week is that it’s 82% complete. Both schools are definitely on track and we’re looking forward to seeing those receive their first group of students.
We’re fortunate that in Chatham there is a Capital Improvement Programming 10-year-plan. They are proactive in generating the funding necessary for those capital projects. We don’t have any reason to believe that the projects will — good news, it’s too late for them not to have money for Chatham Grove, but for Seaforth, we don’t have any reason to believe that the funding to continue building will be adversely impacted. The work is continuing, and we’re looking forward to getting to the point where Chatham Grove is — reaching that same finish line.
Obviously a lot has happened in the last couple months. But what is one of your biggest takeaways from all that has happened, especially as it pertains to instructional methods and practices?
I think my biggest takeaway is that people are more committed to humanity than they likely were before March. I think that we are more interested in the well being of one another. We are more aware of the fact that the notion of the “microwave society,” where we put it in a microwave and press a button and it’s ready for us in a minute. I think people are more aware of the fact that that’s probably not reality. And we all need each other and we all need to be patient and committed to working together for positive outcomes.
At the end of the day, our young people are watching us. We are supposed to be fully committed to making sure that they have what’s necessary and that’s going to take patience and collaboration. So I think that I have fully come to realize, even more than I did previously that at the end of the day, we are all in this together. And I am so grateful for the kindness and the patience that has been shown to us over the past months.
I can tell you that we want kids back in school as quickly as possible, and as safely as possible. We’re going to allow the folks who are experts in public health to make those decisions and we will spend the bulk of our time doing what we have been trained to do, and make sure that the instructional components and the pieces of schooling that are left to our to our charge are met with the best work that we can provide.
Last but not least, if I can, how are YOU doing? And how is your staff handling all this?
That question means more to me than you can ever imagine, because I think many times folks fail to realize that very rarely is the work as easy it seems.
We are struggling with the same things folks are struggling with personally with respect to our families, with respect to our own health — both physical and mental health and I can tell you we’re all trying to hang in. What has been so, so, so important for me is that people realize we’re human and we’re absolutely doing the best that we can. No one got into this work with the desire to see how we can do any less than our best for the folks that we serve.
We’re all hanging in there, we’re leaning on each other — we’re not always in a good place, but what I’ve said to everybody is we can’t all be down at the same time. So we’re working together to support one another and support our community, but definitely realize there’s a lot of tough days ahead of us. We’ll keep doing our best to make the best decisions possible while realizing we do have to take care of ourselves and one another.