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As schools opened, principals faced lots of ‘what ifs’
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Richmond Hill Primary School Principal Nancy Highsmith said her staff faced “a lot of ‘what if ’s’” last fall as they geared up for the 2020-2021 school year, one in which students would be headed back to school in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We ‘what if ’d’ ourselves until we were exhausted,” said Highsmith, one of four principals to give presentations to members of the Bryan County Board of Education at their March 25 meeting. “What if the kids get sick? What if adults get sick? What if the kids won’t wear a mask? What if the adults won’t wear a mask? Will the parents actually drop kids off in a building they’ve never been in before? Will kids actually get in the car at a building they’ve never been in? All we had was a lot of ‘what ifs’ we didn’t have an answer for.”

What she learned, Highsmith said, was that “we didn’t’ have any research on this, but we did the best we could, and it all turned out great.”

Highsmith said the abrupt end to the 2019-2020 school year, which ended with schools closing the doors in March and a transition to online learning, was a revelation.

“Usually at that time there’s a lot of excitement, but last year came to an abrupt stop,” she said. “There was a lot of anxiety, a lot of unknowns at that time. But I found out what I already knew, that I had an amazing faculty and staff, and an amazing student body and parents.”

Highsmith said she found four words on social media that resonated with her: “Support, flexibility, grace and patience,” and called those her “anchor words.”

“We’re concerned with the physical, social and emotional health for the adults and the children in our building, so for our faculty and staff these four words were our anchor words,” Highsmith said. “Whenever we’d feel ourselves getting stressed out, we’d ask, ‘which of these do I need, which do those around me need so we can take care of each other while we’re taking care of children.”

The school board gave parents at the beginning of the current school year the option to enroll their children in what they called face-to-face learning or take classes online. At the same time, school officials mandated all faculty, staff and students wear masks on campus.

Richmond Hill Primary started out the 2020-2021 academic year with 685 students, and that number has risen to 787 students now, Highsmith said, adding that test scores show students fared well academically despite small decreases in some areas – something educators called “the COVID dip.”

“There were some academic concerns,” she said, adding that students were performing at national norms in reading and math. “We’re seeing a little bit of a difference, but not a huge difference. I was very pleased to see we didn’t have a significant difference.”

That assessment on academics echoed that of other principals at the meeting – Eileen Emerson at Lanier Primary, Walt Barnes and assistant principal Keith Forken at Richmond Hill Elementary, and Karen Smith at George Washington Carver Elementary. All said that while scores show some setbacks caused by the way last school year ended, the decline was overall a few percentage points.

Emerson said the school year at LPS began with 317 students in class, a number that has since increased to 335, a 12 percent growth in enrollment since school began.

“Of those, 38 moved in from other school districts,” she said, adding that it showed they were comfortable with Bryan County Schools’ safety policies – which in addition to masks included heightened cleaning requirements and social distancing.

“We knew coming in this year we would have some challenges, due to COVID obviously, but we all had a lot of discussions right before school started, and we wanted to make sure we got it right. We wanted to make sure we offered them a safe place,” Emerson said. “The number of parents bringing kids to our schools, I think it shows they feel safe, and they feel we’re doing the right thing.”

Barnes and Forken, wearing matching T-shirts, performed a part of their presentation to music, and read out a riddle of sorts.

“Today we have a great product we want to share, and it comes to us without any cost. It’s totally free, it has endless potential and it comes in all colors, shapes and sizes,” the two said. “We’re in the education business, and if we do this correctly, we could end world hunger, prevent another pandemic, we could create world peace and stop global warming. For just a small investment, we’re willing to share 100 percent of our profits.”

The product they were referring to is students, and Barnes said there are 633 students and 66 staff members at RHES this year. The longtime RHES principal told the board its decision to require face masks was “one of the most important decisions,” made and helped give staff and parents a sense of security heading into the 20202021 school year.

Richmond Hill Elementary, like the other schools, saw its percentage of students taking classes online dwindle as the year went on, from 130 in August to 85 now.

“I believe it’s because parents felt like it was a safe environment to send their kids back to school,” Barnes said.

After that presentation, Bryan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher told Barnes – “I’ll have to say in the nine years you’ve been doing presentations, this is the first time I’ve heard radio in the background.”

The RHES principals weren’t the only ones to use the arts to get their point across. Highsmith, in her presentation, called it the story of an elementary school in the middle of a pandemic.

Carver Principal Karen Smith turned hers into a story along the lines of the popular children’s book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond.

“I call mine “What happens if you give a teacher a mask,” Smith said, then began reading.

“If you give your teachers a mask and tell them 190 students will be e-learning from home, a dozen of them will volunteer on the spot and say put me where I can best help our school,” Smith said. “When you tell them they will be welcoming 460 face to face learners back to school they’ll create a reopening plan in just a few short days. The reopening plan will include a virtual meet and greet schedule for each family.

“And,” Smith continued. “if you give your teachers a mask, they’ll find a way to make the first day of school special instead of scary.”

Smith later read quotes from a handful of Caver teachers, adding there were a number of lessons learned from giving teachers masks.

“Lesson No. 1: Great educators are relentless in the pursuit of teaching,” she said. “They don’t make excuses.”

READ RELATED STORY: BoE gets earful on masks

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