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Episode 49: Let the Learning Begin – Principals Talk About Being Back

As our schools prepare to welcome students back, principals are excited to see the new school year begin after having buildings empty for nearly six months. In this episode of the Supercast, Superintendent Anthony Godfrey talks to some principals about their hopes for a safe and successful school year despite changes brought on by the pandemic.


Audio Transcription

Superintendent Godfrey:
Hello, and welcome to the Supercast. I'm your host, Superintendent Anthony Godfrey. It has been a long, and some might say "lonely", six months for principals, who are used to having schools filled with students, teachers, and staff involved in learning, and so many other exciting activities that bring a school community together. On this bonus episode of the Supercast, we sit down with a few principals. Hear from a counselor to find out how they plan on welcoming everyone back, and the excitement that surrounds having students in school. Again, we're here at Mountain Creek Middle School with Kimberly Stewart, the Department Chair of the Language Arts department here, a teacher, and also a parent of elementary age students in the District. Thanks for talking with us.

Kimberly:
You're welcome.

Superintendent Godfrey:
There's a lot to do preparing for the school year and department chairs, as we've tried to juggle online and in-person instruction, have had a pretty heavy load. Tell us a little bit about what you've been going through.

Kimberly:
So, I think for my department especially, we had a couple teachers that have gone online or partially online. So, we've had to cover, admit our department, cover the classes that are live as they take some other schools’ online classes. So, that's been kind of a stressful way to start the school year, to know that our schedules are changing. I think we've got our final schedules today. You know we have a few days before school starts, so it's been pretty stressful, but I feel my department's been really good at jumping in. I've got an English teacher that's going to be teaching dance for a period and taking creative writing. Everybody's been really good about this jumping in and helping each other out.

Superintendent Godfrey:
There has had to be a high level of flexibility that's for sure. And I know teachers and educators in general are very good at that, but unfortunately, there's been a need for even more than normal.

Kimberly:
Yes, for sure. I thought that last year, opening the new school was stressful, but this year has definitely been more required. A lot more flexibility.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Was the thought, it's going to be better next year? It's going to be easier next year? I really am impressed at just how hard people have worked and how flexible they've been. And that combination is what's going to get us through.

Kimberly:
Yeah. Yeah. And that's what I've really just told my teachers. We just need to be calm and confident when we're working with our students no matter what happens. If we go online, that's fine. We've done it. The students just know it's going to be okay and we're ready for it. And it's not going to freak anybody. We're going to be fine.

Superintendent Godfrey:
As you anticipate students returning, what are you most excited about?

Kimberly:
I'm just excited for their energy back in the building. We've seen some come in to see their lockers and get tours. And we just are so excited to see kids back in the building because that's where we get our excitement. We're expanding off their excitement and their energy. And that's really fulfilling for teachers to have that those relationships. And it was hard to do online in the spring. So, we're just really excited to have them back in here so that we can see them and interact with them and see them interact with each other. That's what I'm most excited about.

Superintendent Godfrey:
What are you concerned about or worried about? I know there's a lot to think about as the school year starts. What are your concerns going in?

Kimberly:
For me, the biggest thing is just the inconsistency with things. If we're on for two weeks and off for two weeks and not knowing how to plan for that, I'm a planner. And so, not knowing if I should be preparing things online or in-person or both. Especially having two elementary school students thinking about. If they quarantine for two weeks and I'm still working, or vice versa, that's going to be stressful to have to figure things out that way. Probably my biggest concern is, I just would like to stay in the building, working as long as possible.

Superintendent Godfrey:
This is a particularly difficult time for people who are planners. That's for sure. If you're a planner, this is the most difficult sort of thing you can imagine because of the level of uncertainty. I think everyone's feeling that and until we have students back, we won't really know how things are going to feel. This is the longest they've ever been out of school by a long shot. And I think everyone will take some adjusting. What do you anticipate in that way? What do you think will need to happen?

Kimberly:
I think what we've changed for the beginning of the year is we've just put a lot more thought into how are we going to connect with these students right away and how are we going to give them opportunities to connect with each other, even when we're trying to be really safe. Contact tracing and social distancing, about how to really still allow them to be social and build relationships with each other and with us. And so, we've built our curriculum a little bit differently. We've created moments where that can happen. And with Fridays creating some time where they can be on Zoom meetings or do some videos, they can watch each other and interact with each other in a pretty safe way. We just know those relationships are super important for middle school students.

Superintendent Godfrey:
You mentioned you're a parent of elementary age kids. So, what are your thoughts about sending them back to school?

Kimberly:
Well, my youngest, he's a three-year-old, and he's at the Daycare at Bingham and he's been there for a week and a half now. I was really worried about a three-year-old wearing a mask all day. I didn't know if he would do it and how the teacher would get 12 three-year-olds to wear their masks, but he hasn't had a problem. He just wears it and it's not a big deal. I have a first grader who really missed her friends and missed her teacher when she was a kindergarten in the spring. So, I'm excited for her to be back, but I'm just a little nervous about how the social distancing will affect them in elementary school. Her friends walk around and hold hands all the time. Right? They're just little girls and they love that. So, I'm a little nervous about that, but I think that kids are really resilient and I found that a lot of times, we, as adults, have a harder time adjusting to change than the kids will and that they're just going to find ways to still have fun and make school.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Great.

Kimberly:
Anyway, and I think those elementary teachers are thinking about all of those things and they're going to be really good about letting the kids still be kids.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Kimberly, thank you very much for talking with us. I wish you the best this school year. Your students are lucky to get to be back in the classroom with you.

Kimberly:
Thanks.

Superintendent Godfrey:
We're here with Mike Glenn, Principal of Mountain Creek Middle School to talk about the coming school year. Mike, how have preparations been going for the coming year?

Mike:
Good. I think that the only part of it that's hard has just been the uncertainty and the changes. We'll make a plan and it looks good, and then we'll get another directive from either the State or the District. Things get adjusted. I think that's probably been one of the key challenges, trying to meet these needs. And I think probably the biggest issue for us is that we're trying to balance school safety with education, right? And those things don't always go together.

Superintendent Godfrey:
They do when we're talking about physical safety, but with COVID-19, it's a totally different ball game. So how do we really try to create an environment that's as close to normal as possible where the kids can learn and yet still remain healthy and safe opening a new school and then having the spring happen and then the fall, do you feel like it has ever stopped?

Mike:
Normally, at this point in your career, you get to enjoy the benefit of experience a little bit, but every decision you make is a new decision you've never had to make before. It probably feels like that's good because we're never bored, right? There's no complacency when every day is a new challenge. And from the one perspective, we were on such a high. I don't know that you would say high stress level, but we were functioning just trying to make everything happen.
Last year, the building, of course, was a little bit behind schedule and they were laying tile and washing the floors the same night, in each different hallway. And I think we had the last tile laid a couple of hours before the ribbon cutting ceremony. And so, we were always just barely staying ahead of the boulder that's chasing us down the hill. And then the spring hit and it kind of threw another wrench. We just thought we got a handle on things. And so, this year, in some ways it's a lot of change, but we've already been through that. And at least now it's a known thing. And so, I think, in a lot of ways, it's maybe less stressful than what we went through last year is we are planning to open the building.

Superintendent Godfrey:
There is a lot of uncertainty still, and I know things are still going to shift and change. Once the school year gets underway. But what are you most looking forward to with the start of the school year?

Mike:
Having some normalcy, so we know the kids. The kids bring so much positive energy with them. And so, having a routine established where they can come to school, we get to see them, they interact with the teachers, we're doing assessments. We're clear about the content, you know, the face-to-face instruction, and the new online learning we're going to do. We've already touched our toe in the water in the spring. The teachers that are doing the full online classes know they're more specific and more focused on what to do. And so even that's going to have a lot more of a solid image of what we need. And so, getting back to the routines and interacting with the kids and then moving them along so that they understand. That's what we're all about.

Superintendent Godfrey:
So, the interaction with students really is the fuel for what we do. And it's been innovative to do it over a screen. It's been worthwhile to stay engaged, however we could. And a lot of effort has gone into making that meaningful, but there's nothing like having kids in the building and being face-to-face, even though the distance, even with plexiglass in-between you and be able to have those interactions.

Mike:
I think too, educators are as a rule, they love people and they love kids. And so, it was a great stop gap to be able to do Google Hangouts or Zoom or some kind of online thing, but really, what they need is that contact with the kids and that's where they make their connections. And so, reading the kids, such as body language in their eyes and understanding their frustrations and feeding off each other’s, that's where teachers thrive. And so, we're glad to have the kids back. We love that connection.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Thanks a lot for taking the time. I know you've got a ton to do. We'll let you get back to it, but here's to a great school year. And thanks for all the hard work you're doing.

Mike:
Thanks. We're excited. It's going to be great.

Superintendent Godfrey:
We're going to take a quick break, and when we come back, a middle school counselor talks about the anxiety some may be feeling about coming back to school and how those feelings are expected after almost six months apart.

Sandra Reisgraf:
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Superintendent Godfrey:
We're here with Becky Hunsaker from the Counseling Department here at Mountain Creek Middle School to talk about preparations for the school year to come in just a few days. Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk with us.

Becky:
Absolutely. Thank you.

Superintendent Godfrey:
You opened a school just a year ago, and then we shut down in the spring and now we're opening under these circumstances and we've asked a lot of counselors, shuffling things around to provide those online opportunities. How does this compare with opening a new school?

Becky:
Oh man. There are so many unexpected things when you open up a new school. We all know each other now, we didn't know each other as a counseling team, as a staff, and we didn't know our students. And now that we know them, it's just a different ball game. In this process, we all have a part to play, you know, and now with COVID and shutting down and changing all of the schedules again, after getting the board finished and all the classes set in place in June, it's just been kind of something that we're used to. We're flexible. That's our main word we're using. We're flexible.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Flexibility is the name of the game. And like you said, everyone pitches in and this is changing everyone's life. Every employee, every parent, every student is living life a little differently now and has to be flexible. I used to love working on the schedule board, counting the number of seats per period. Not anymore though, not anymore. And I know that you guys have had to work really hard. What else has changed just as you prepare for the school year? I know that it's not just about schedules. It's also about helping students adapt to being back in school after being out for so long,

Becky:
Right. They are missing their friends. They are also, in survival mode from COVID. We all are, you know. Our flight response is more immediate because of that. You know the danger of having COVID, of dealing with that and all of the natures that come with it, that we are so worried about our kids and their mental health and their apprehension. When they come to school, we really just want to meet with each kid when they come back in the first quarter, check in and see how they're doing to make sure that we're on a good path to success and that they know they can come and reach us. And now we'll have to change up our processes a little bit, but with this new technology, we've been more accessible than ever.

Superintendent Godfrey:
What are you most concerned about as you anticipate the start of school?

Becky:
That's a really good question, Anthony. I'm worried for everyone. I think of every group. I'm worried about the students and what they're facing, it's different than what the teachers are facing. The teachers are amazing how flexible they've been and how willing they are to take on some online schedules to recreate their curriculum and if we go into lockdown, how to change their curriculum. All within 24 hours, you know, that was amazing. Teachers just have so many wonderful skills to be creative and are just in-tune with what their kids they need. They had to cut their curriculum down quite a bit. So, I worry about how they're adjusting to this. And I worry about my fellow counselors during this time because we're having to get on the phone and explain a lot of what's going on to the parents and the kids.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Right.

Becky:

But my biggest worry is community. I really want us all to feel like, yes, we have a mask. Yes, we have to socially distance, but we can still be a community. We can still be unified as a school again. And not as a counseling perspective as a counselor. I really want to see that again. I missed that connection between my students, that smile I could give them to them in the hallway, that high-five that I can no longer give them. That's what I I'm worried about is how can I connect with them? How can I help connection in the lunchroom being six feet apart? How are we going to give that social time because that is so important? As we face challenges with mental health support, connection is key. So that's my biggest concern is how do we make sure we have the connection?

Superintendent Godfrey:
What are you most excited about anticipating the start of the year?

Becky:
I just want to see the kids again, I've missed the kids. I've missed my team. I've missed the teachers. I miss that connection. What I'm excited for too, is just to feel whatever we can as normal, you know, be as close to normal as possible. That's what I want. And that's what I'm excited about, just to see bodies instead of a laptop in my kitchen. Right? That's what I'm most excited for. I just love the energy that the kids bring to me and to my life. And that was truly missing for me.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Well, thanks again. I know you've worked really hard. I know how much you care about kids. I met with you last year and you just are so focused on helping everyone around you, just like you described. So, thanks for everything you're doing and let us know how we can help.

Becky:
Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Here's to a great year.

Superintendent Godfrey:
We're here at Heartland Elementary with Principal Buddy Alger to talk about preparations for the coming school year. Buddy, what's on your mind as you prepare for the school year? There's a lot.

Buddy:
Yeah, you're right. There is a lot on my mind. One of the big things on my mind is our students and our teachers just being able to make sure and try to think about everything. I think that's one of the hardest tasks as a principal at this time, just having to try and think through every scenario for every teacher, for every student, for every staff member, so that I can help answer questions and trying to lift the burdens of stress that people are putting on themselves as they try and find those answers. I want to be able to be a support and be able to give guidance where I can.

Superintendent Godfrey:
What are you hearing from parents as the school year approaches?

Buddy:
You know, it's kind of a mixed bag. I'm hearing a lot of nervous excitement, right? It's the same feeling that's kind of in the school building. There's this nervous excitement. That's building from our teachers, from our staff members and I'm getting a lot of that from parents. Don't get me wrong. We're excited to have kids in building, but I need to know a couple of things and they just want to communicate. They want to know that we're being thoughtful about their kids, that we've considered the lunch room and how we're going to get their students to and from that. We have looked at healthcare plans, and 504 plans and students with IEPs. They want to know that we are looking into the best for their individual student. I had a mom say in a phone call was spot on. She said, "Buddy, I'm not worried about the whole school. I'm just worried about my son". And helping me connect to her son as an individual helped me conceptualize a lot of things about our plan and our processes. They are individual students. We may look at them sometimes as numbers in class lists and rosters. And boy are there a lot of lists. But as I've made my way through those, recognizing that each one also represents an individual somebody's child that they're sending to us so that we can work. Our magic as educators is felt like a daunting task, but also is an honor.

Superintendent Godfrey:
I think what you said makes a ton of sense and is exactly what we're all trying to get through this mix of emotions that really just boils down to wanting to take care of individual students and families and teachers and employees and give them what they need.

Buddy:
Yes.
Superintendent Godfrey:
I noticed that, of course, you're wearing your District name tag as all do, but you have a little extra accessory there. Tell me about that.

Buddy:
Oh yeah. Well, this was actually a gift from one of my second-grade teachers or my second-grade team so I could take hand sanitizer on-the-go, that no matter where I was, I could be safe

Superintendent Godfrey:
Kind of a hand sanitizer holster that you have clip clipped in on your name tag.

Buddy:
That is correct.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Well done. I'm sure you'll be slinging. Plenty of that when school starts next week. Thanks for taking the time. I know you've got a lot on your plate. We really appreciate you stopping to talk with us.

Buddy:
Of course. Thank you.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Thanks for joining us on the Supercast. We wish you the best at school starts next week. And remember, education is the most important thing you will do today. We'll see out there.

 

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