One year later
Hartselle superintendent reflects on school year under pandemic restrictions
March 18, 2020, is a day to remember for local educators – a day when, just before spring break, novel coronavirus cases rising statewide caused their school year to be cut short.
Graduating seniors missed out on their proms, and student-athletes’ final high school games were canceled out of the blue. Teachers and support staff were thrust into professional development training on how to handle the transition to virtual instruction nearly overnight.
Hartselle City Schools Superintendent Dr. Dee Dee Jones said looking back on this time this past year, a lot has changed, and the school system continues to adapt.
“I look back to when they had curfews in place, and it was so new; we were all nervous about getting up to the school to hand out the meals,” Jones said.
Though the 2020-21 school year has presented its share of challenges, Jones said through the months of challenges and lessons learned, positives have come out of the challenges as well.
“We have learned a lot,” she said. “We now have better ways to sanitize when a flu season or other viruses come around. We have UV lights in our HVAC systems. We had a lot of that before, but the pandemic forced us to step that up.”
Policies put into place during the pandemic will continue, Jones said – like a policy that has students at the high school returning for the school year in waves based on last name. Jones said those with the last name beginning with A-K will return one day, and L-Z will return the following day, with the entire student body in class the rest of the week.
“The teachers loved that,” she said. “It gave them the opportunity to get to know their students and establish a relationship early on. So there are definitely some things from this year that we will keep moving forward.”
Jones said 52 percent of the Hartselle City Schools population has received the coronavirus vaccine, and district wide, there are no positive cases. Eight people are in quarantine.
“I’m so thankful for our partnerships with Decatur-Morgan Hospital and Cullman Regional,” she added. “They worked with us to help get our teachers and staff in and out.”
The transition from in–person instruction to virtual learning was something Jones said was tough and could not have been done without the hard work put in by the principals, teachers and support staff of Hartselle City Schools.
Aiding the transition was the district-wide familiarity with Google Classroom, she added.
“Of course, at that time, we were not 1-1,” Jones said. “We had to ask our parents who needed a device, but we had 10 days’ worth of lessons prepared, and that was very helpful. It was also great that we had a district–wide technology facilitator; I’m thankful that was already in place.”
Already having virtual teachers on HCS’ staff also aided in that transition, Jones said.
“I did not want that to be a burden on our classroom teachers; the transition was burdensome enough, to have to worry with all the quarantines … and they had to plan differently,” Jones said. “I am thankful that for the number of students we had that were full-time virtual students, we had somebody dedicated just to those students.
“It was not perfect, and we learned a lot and learned ways to improve on that.”
More challenges were in store for Hartselle City Schools, even after the initial shock of the abrupt end of the 2019-20 school year.
“June looked really great; we had had graduation, and we thought we could come back to school, and we would just have to have these protocols put in place,” Jones said. “We thought we had a good plan – and then July came, and numbers started increasing in Alabama and especially in north Alabama, but we continued on.”
Professional development with teachers and support staff, complete with custodians and bus drivers learning new ways to deep clean and sanitize, was a part of starting the school year on time, Jones said.
“Putting all those things in place was just another way to keep our students safe – and not only them but our staff,” she said. “Some of our teachers had to learn new ways to present information because we knew some students would be put on quarantine – at the time, we just didn’t know how many,” she added.
Jones said she believes face-to-face instruction is best for the students, if at all possible.
“I am very thankful that in Hartselle we were able to come to school, face to face, five days a week,” she said. “At the high school, because of the class sizes, there was just no way to separate and make those smaller without additional staff.
“We had someone working late to fog (with sanitizer) every day – same thing with our buses – and thankfully we didn’t have to shut down.”
Now every desktop computer in the district is equipped with a camera, allowing classroom teachers to record their lessons and upload them to Google Classroom, which will continue to benefit Hartselle students who are in quarantine, out sick or even those who just need a refresher course.
Moving forward, Jones said she can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I can see it out there,” she said, “unless something changes drastically. The good thing is, though, even if that happens, we are prepared.”
“I think these students deserve something as normal as normal can be,” she said. “You don’t realize how much you appreciate something until it is gone,” she added, mentioning she is looking forward to when pep rallies and indoor spring chorus concerts are no longer a thing of the past.
After April 9, when the mask mandate is expected to be lifted, Jones said she would like to keep masks required while students are in school.
“The three superintendents in Morgan County have talked, and we agree. While we are in school, so we can stay in school, we would like to keep the masks,” she said.
“We have a great team in place, and I’m thankful for all of our teachers and our staffs in our schools because they worked hard to make this happen. They created the plan and then carried it out,” Jones added. “Our principals and our teachers made sure that are students were taken care of, and that, to me, was what was most important.
“It was tough, but it was about our purpose. Our purpose is about our students and making sure we offer them the best and most quality instruction we can, and I’m always going to do that.”