School Leaders Reflect on Tackling COVID-19


This article is part of our series “COVID-19: 1 Year Later,” exploring the ways COVID-19 has affected and changed daily life over the last year. For two weeks, we surveyed our readers on how COVID-19 has affected them. Read our survey results here. Today, we share how local school districts worked together to have a successful school year while facing COVID-19.

As the 2020-2021 school year ends, both the city and county schools are glad to have gotten through a year Trey Duke, Murfreesboro City Schools Director, describes as “like no other.” Looking back over their experiences, both systems feel they have learned a lot, and have gained knowledge that will likely change how students are taught in the future.

Both Rutherford County and Murfreesboro City Schools began monitoring and making contingency plans during the second semester of the 2019-2020 school year as news from around the country began pouring in.

“At first, we thought that the pandemic meant that schools might be closed for a few days,” said Duke. “Maybe a week. Then concern grew as it became obvious that we were not going to be finishing out the school year in the classroom. Then we immediately began thinking about what it would look like when we came back in the fall.”

“We worked with state and local officials throughout the summer and leading up to the school year to develop our Continuous Learning Plan,” explained James Evans, Rutherford County Schools Communications and Community Relations Director, “which included an in-person and virtual option for families.”

Murfreesboro City Schools (MCS) decided right away that they wanted to do what it took to get children back into the classroom. Duke pulled department heads together and asked them what it would look like in each area to put students in the classroom. Then the system went to principals because they knew that each school would need to approach it differently, as would those dealing with special needs children and English language learners. Lunch times, bus rides, and after school programs were picked apart to figure out what they needed to do and what supplies would be needed to follow CDC guide lines and keep everyone safe.

MCS created a 30-page document that was made available to everyone in the system. It was a compilation of all of the safety requirements for everyone involved, and contingencies if a class, grade, or school had to go into quarantine.

“It was a working document,” noted Lisa Trail. MCS Director of Communications. “We added and took away things as needed, but we were all at least singing from the same song book.”

A larger system, Rutherford County Schools (RCS) also aimed for putting kids back into the classroom, because they learn better there, but they did have to put several entire schools into quarantine.

“We… moved individual schools to temporary distance-learning when there were staffing issues related to contract tracing that prevented us from efficiently operating a school,” said Evans. “Those were usually for a few days at a time to allow employees to clear their quarantine period. We were able to keep a majority of our schools open. Virtual learning isn’t for everyone and it also places a hardship on working parents.”

Through it all, both school systems said that communication was the key element. The schools needed to stay in contact with their many advisors to maintain state guidelines and CDC rules, and then they needed to disperse ever changing requirements with parents, teachers, administration, principals, and other learning partners.

“Parents want stability,” said Duke. “We worked hard to keep them informed and to keep their child in the classroom…We were committed. And we spent the majority of the year in our [school] buildings.”

When teachers did have to teach virtually, they used a variety of online platforms in RCS, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. “They did a great job and adapted their teaching strategies quickly to the new environment,” said Evans. “Teachers, administrators and support staff should be praised for their commitment during this unprecedented school year.” Both systems also praise parents for being understanding and patient.

Although neither city nor county schools have received any score from the state on standardized testing, there has been much talk about learning loss, especially in the Spring of 2020 when school went all virtual. For that reason, both the city and county school systems are providing summer sessions.

“We have summer learning camps planned for June for [kindergarten through eighth] grades and expanded opportunities for high school students. So far, we have more than 7,000 students whose parents have applied for [these] summer camps.”

“MCS will provide a six-week summer camp to give kids additional time to strengthen their studies in math, reading, and other activities,” said Duke. “We expected 750, we have had 1900 registrations.”

Schools had a wider window this year to conduct TNReady assessments, and those results will be used to measure students’ progress this year. Duke feels that by keeping kids in the classroom as much as possible, that the school system will not experience as much learning loss as that found in other parts of Tennessee and the country.

“This school year has definitely been one of learning for everyone involved,” said Evans. “We’ve all become experts working in virtual environments and learned the importance of being fluid and adaptable.”

Duke concurs, and he feels that as we head toward some sense of normal, it will include the use of a lot more technology as everyone is more comfortable on that platform now. But he misses all of the interaction the system usually has with parents and the community. He looks forward to a return to opening schools to parents and community partners again.

“I’m not sure we know all the effects [of COVID-19 on learning] yet,” said Evans, “but it’s been amazing to watch as our employees have risen to the challenge and learned new skills in an effort to continue serving the needs of students.”

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