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Posts tagged as “Durham Public Schools”

As state leaders push to reopen schools, some Durham school leaders push back

Durham teachers should have a chance to receive COVID-19 vaccines before they are asked to return to school, two school board members said this week after Gov. Roy Cooper urged school officials to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction. 

“At this time we’re still on the trajectory of continuing to stay remote,” Mike Lee, vice chair of the Durham Public Schools board, said Wednesday. “It’s important that if we are asking our teachers to go back to teach our students, teachers should be put at the forefront of the vaccinations, so that they can have some assurance that they are safe.”

In a letter Tuesday to local school board members and superintendents across the state, Cooper said recent research shows that schools can reopen safely when they follow COVID-19 safety protocols. A Jan. 26  CDC report cited a study of 17 rural K-12 schools in Wisconsin, which found that only seven out of 191 coronavirus cases were the result of in-school transmission. 

“In-person learning is fundamental to children’s development and well-being,” Cooper wrote. “Our public schools provide academic guidance, social and emotional supports, reliable meals, and opportunities for physical activity. Further, there are growing harms to children who are relying solely on remote instruction, including negative impacts on academic and mental health and food insecurity.” 

Cooper, a Democrat, was not alone in pushing school boards to get students back into their classrooms. Catherine Truitt, the Republican state superintendent of public instruction, co-signed Cooper’s letter and joined him to make the case at a press conference. 

While Cooper and Truitt said they “strongly recommend” that local school boards provide in-person instruction, the Republican-led Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would require schools to do so.  If the legislation receives final approval next week, it will go to the House for consideration. 

A bottle of disinfectant but no students were present in a Jordan High School hallway this week. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Infection rate too high

DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth said administrators are studying the Senate legislation and Cooper’s recommendation, and have not decided whether to recommend changes. Lee said the DPS board will consider Cooper’s letter at its Feb. 11 meeting. 

Most North Carolina school systems are providing in-classroom instruction now for at least some students, or have announced plans to do so by mid-March. The DPS board voted Jan. 7 to continue with remote learning for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year.  Board members said then that they didn’t want to consider reopening schools until Durham County’s coronavirus infection rate — the percent of public test results that come back positive — falls below 4% for a two-week period. The county’s infection rate stands this week at 7.9%.

Board member Natalie Beyer said Tuesday that all teachers and staff should have the option to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. DPS employs nearly 6,000 people. School board members have been told that school staff members are not likely to receive COVID-19 vaccinations until April, she said. 

“Student and staff safety has to be paramount as we work on the incredibly complex logistics of reopening,” Beyer said. “I know that [online instruction] is not equivalent to an in-person experience. But with the vaccine so close, it seems even more important for our state leaders to work with the federal government to rapidly accelerate the vaccinations of teachers and other frontline workers.” 

Animal science teacher Breanna Saunders comes to her empty classroom at Jordan High School to teach her veterinary assistance students online. “If Durham allowed us to move up in priority and to be able to get the vaccine before kids came back [to school], I would be for it,” Saunders says.
Teachers’ safety concerns

Happi Adams, an English teacher at Jordan High School, said teachers would rather teach in person but have insisted on online learning because of safety concerns. 

“Instead of legislating when we go back to school, I would like for our legislators to push measures that address our COVID safety concerns — provide funding to improve ventilation in buildings, purchase appropriate amounts of P.P.E., and speed up the distribution of vaccines for teachers. This is what will enable us to teach in-person safely,” Adams said. 

Although teaching virtually is not ideal compared to in-person instruction, she said, it’s better than the inconsistency of switching back and forth between in-person, hybrid and virtual learning. 

“Consistency and predictability are key to quality instruction,” Adams said. “By making the decision to stay [online] through June, we have avoided the chaotic back-and-forth that many districts have experienced and eased the anxiety that comes from uncertainty. Teachers and schools have been able to focus on improving virtual learning.” 

Cooper said local school leaders should follow safety protocols outlined in the state’s Strong Schools Public Health Toolkit, which describes measures including adequate community testing, PPE, disinfecting, masking and more. 

DPS board member Matt Sears said state leaders should let Durham and other local school boards decide whether in-classroom instruction is safe.

“I was glad to hear Gov. Cooper talk about local control and local decision-making,” Sears said. “If the legislation that comes forward does not include that, my hope is that he would veto that legislation.”

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top: Animal science teacher Breanna Saunders leading class in her empty classroom this week at Jordan High School. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

School is online, but programs bring some kids together to learn

Once the Durham Board of Education decided in July to move school online, members began planning learning centers – supervised spaces where students unable to stay at home could attend virtual classes. 

“We knew there would be children whose parents are essential workers, or who didn’t have anyone at home,” board member Natalie Beyer said. “We’ve been reading about what other progressive cities have been doing to take care of children, so we pushed hard for it.” 

Currently, Durham Public Schools funds four learning center sites: at Eno Valley and WG Pearson Magnet elementary schools for students in grades pre-K through 5, and at Carrington and Shepard middle schools for students in grades 6 through 12.

Local non-profits have set up similar centers in Durham too. Some residents have organized informal sites – a case of parents helping parents in the face of these unpredictable times. As of this week, DPS centers serve 300 students.

Like most things throughout this pandemic, launching these spaces required creativity and caution. By combining state guidelines and listening to their students, public school administrators created strategies to guard against COVID infection and help children learn.

Kezia Goodwin takes the temperature of a student in a classroom at Kate’s Korner. Photo by Henry Haggart

Days at the centers do and do not look like school days. Students arrive at around the same time, about 9 a.m. Once inside they remain in a classroom pod of 10 students. District staff supervise them as they attend online school through each student’s respective Google classroom or zoom link. When the day ends, parents or other caretakers pick them up.

Early on, educators faced challenges, including keeping track of students’ different, and sometimes conflicting schedules, said Tracy Super-Edwards, coordinator of extended learning for DPS. 

“The students are from many schools, all in one classroom, you know. Even though you have 10 students, they could be from 10 different schools and different grade levels, and the educators have to juggle them all,” said Super-Edwards, who oversees the DPS centers.

Initially, the DPS sites drew few students, possibly due to family’s uncertainty that the sites could keep kids safe from COVID-19, according to Super-Edwards. But now, since neither staff nor students have been diagnosed with COVID, interest has grown and the centers are nearly full.

“I think now that we’ve been doing it now for a couple of months, there’s more validity behind it,” Super-Edwards said. “Parents see it’s working, see they’re kids love it, see that they’re safe, and so now we have a lot more students trying to get in.”

Kate’s Korner hosts a DPS Foundation HOPE Learning Center, a program for public school students whose families struggle financially, live in foster care, or have parents who are essential workers. The site has adopted multiple strategies to keep children and staff safe. 

Like DPS, Kate’s Korner keeps students in small pods, requires masks, and screens kids by taking their temperature before they enter every day. They have cleaners do a full COVID spray-down cleaning weekly.

“We do a lot of hand washing, a lot of sanitizing, and managing keeping kids out of each-other’s space, which is difficult. Some people might say [the COVID spray] is a little extreme, but you know we’re keeping everyone safe,” said Kezia Goodwin, Kate’s Korner founder.

Kate’s Korner was set to open initially as drop-in child care center, but after COVID hit and derailed Goodwin’s plans, she jumped at the opportunity to help the DPS Foundation’s plans to help the community.

Through partnership with Durham county, the DPS Foundation, The YMCA, and Student U, a Durham education nonprofit, Kate’s Korner doesn’t charge students who enroll. 

“With time, energy and effort that we were giving them, the students are getting there, and we’re helping them improve. We’re serving kids with some of the least opportunity” Goodwin said.

Durham Museum of Life and Science, through its Museum Clubhouse, also has opened an alternative to attending online school at home.

The program is an extension of a camp they produced over the summer, taking what they had learned and expanding it with educators and more enrichment programs, leading kids through exhibits and fun themes throughout the week, said Carly Apple, director of STEM learning at the museum and overseer of the Clubhouse.

This program charges tuition, with the cost varying depending on how many days a week students participate. Enrolling four days a week between Oct. 19 and Nov. 13 cost museum members $952 and non-members, $1,048, according to the program’s website.

“Some days, students are more fidgety than other days; some days they need more or less attention. We try to give them activities so they’re not just at their computers all day,” Apple said.

One of the most important aspects of these centers is the chance to socialize, Apple said.

“We have a way to give kids safe socialization, which is something that we value. A lot of parents are worried about isolation with their kids. This was a way that kids could safely, I mean as safely as possible, they could interact with other kids,” Apple said.

Apple said the kids can play games socially distanced, and take daily tours of museum exhibits, ways to keep active and social.

Angela Caraway helps a student with online classwork at Kate’s Korner. Photo by Henry Haggart

Every day, the staff is learning from the needs of their students and adapting their policies throughout the months. The general, yet surprising, consensus among these administrators, though, is that kids are good at wearing masks.

“They’re much more mature about it than a lot of adults I know,” Apple said. “They adapt so quickly, and sure we have to remind them sometimes about small stuff and make sure the masks fit, but they’re just really good about it.”

That said, sometimes they need a break. At the DPS learning centers, staff have marked squares on floors distant from others where students can pull down masks for a minute or two when they need a break.

An unintended benefit of the centers is that they are giving at least some in the school district confidence that is possible for children to safely attend school in a COVID-adapted world. 

“Our staff and our kids are healthy, so I think the fact is that if you put the safety measures in place, and you follow them daily, you have a great chance of preventing spread,” Goodwin said.

“These kids who should be in school, need to go back to school,” she added.

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca. schneid@duke.edu

At top: Ashley Polk, a teacher at Kate’s Korner, helps a student during an online class. Polk said assisting students with the technical side of remote learning is what takes up most of her time at work. Photo by Henry Haggart

With Wellness Wednesdays, Durham schools tune into student health

Days of monotony inside, constant Zoom links and screens, all the while worrying about your and your family’s health. This is the reality of this school year – one unfathomably different than any other.

For faculty at Burton Magnet Elementary School, bolstering the mental health of their students has always been a priority. Since returning to online classes almost two months ago, they’ve had to innovate new ways to get that done.

“Seeing teachers on Canvas or on Zoom is not the same as somebody touching your shoulder and saying you can do it, telling you that you did a good job,” Principal Kimberly Ferrell said. “We can’t provide the same support we could when face to face.”

Anticipating this struggle districtwide, Durham Public Schools developed new tools to promote social and emotional learning and mental health. Wellness Wednesdays is one initiative: one day of the week when students and staff are urged to focus on holistic wellness.

Wellness Wednesdays look different depending on a student’s grade and school, but DPS and each school provide activities focused on personal growth.

There are both live Zoom sessions to learn about aspects of social emotional learning, as well as documents stuffed with ideas offline, independent activities that students and families can tackle for their mental and physical health. 

A few Burton Elementary faculty members lead a session on Wellness Wednesday focused on physical health. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

For October, many schools scheduled anti-bullying programming in tandem with Bullying Prevention Month.

Emotional learning has been a part of priority four of DPS’s five-year strategic plan, focusing on “strengthening school, family, and community engagement,” said Laverne Mattocks-Perry, DPS’s senior executive director of student support services.

The transition to virtual learning this fall presented an opportunity, Mattocks-Perry said, to focus more intentionally on social emotional learning and holistic wellness of students. 

“Everything that we’ve been reading from practitioners tells us that all of the things going on – the economic factors related to COVID-19, civil unrest, abrupt adaptations in how we operate daily as a school – that has been classified as a traumatic childhood experience,” said Mattocks-Perry.

Matthew Hickson, director of online learning, and others reached out to local mental health agencies and conntected with community groups around Durham to work up programming.

On Wednesdays, the district uploads a new document for students, teachers, and parents to look at on the district’s new social and emotional learning hub: EMBRACE.

For example, DPS partnered with Growga to hold weekly yoga classes for students, accessible on the EMBRACE website. They partnered with Triangle United Soccer for a weekly soccer lesson and with other organizations for outdoors activities and cooking tips.

“We really want Wednesdays to be a time for our students to really take a step back. You know, they’re in this intense environment, and so we want all of them to take these days and use them as a time to reflect,” Hickson said.

Elementary schools often have much more structured Wednesdays to ensure heightened support, Hickson said. Burton Magnet Elementary School, located in East Durham off South Alston Avenue is an example.

Burton teachers and administrators continue to bring material support to their students, despite school remaining online. Distributing free books from nonprofit Book Harvest is one example. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

Burton is a magnet school where a majority of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, many of whom were displaced by the crisis at McDougald Terrace last spring. Mental health support there doesn’t stop on the internet.

Using both DPS’s guidelines and their own creativity, Burton Elementary’s leadership spent about eight weeks before school resumed training on the new mental health virtual resources.

“We can’t provide the type of support that we normally give as part of the process. So we came up with a list of activities that we found ways to connect with his students online,” said Tameko Piggee, a Burton social worker.

Burton designed a check-in system that lets students alert teachers about how their minds and bodies feel. They place themselves in color zones in Google Docs: blue for boredom, exhaustion, sadness; green for positive emotions, feeling ready for the day ahead; yellow for feeling out of control and in need of some support; and red to signal extreme emotions, anger and aggression included.

After students pick their spots, school social worker and counselors can identify students in need of aid and reach out.

Teachers are constantly looking out for students who are struggling but aren’t necessarily speaking up about it, said school counselor Ponsella Brown. 

“There are times when we will get messages from teachers. So, we go into the classrooms, virtual through the breakouts and work with students who are dealing not only with COVID-19,” she said. Housing crises can crop up, so can illness and death in families.

School staff still try to help with students’ more physical needs, despite the pandemic. Many students began quarantine without desks, sitting on floors or couches to do work. So, with the service organization Triangle Park Chapter of Links, they provided 80 desks for Burton students.

After the Durham Board of Education decided on Sept. 24 to keep schools remote the rest of the semester, Ferrell said they are ready to keep using Wellness Wednesdays and their own tools to educate and take care of their students online indefinitely.

“The nuance of this new environment for some of our families, was scary,” Ferrell said. “But, we know we’ll always have a relationship with our community. And they trust us.”

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Students can view dancing and other activities during a break from virutal classroom lessons on Wednesdays. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

With help, Durham schools prepare to start the school year online

While working as a technology specialist in Durham Public Schools, Laura Fogle learned about a student whose phone screen was so cracked, glass shards cut her fingers when she typed. Yet she tried to compose an essay on it. Unlike other classmates, she did not have a computer at home.

With the school year set to start online on Monday, the local school district has been working for months to collapse such digital divides among students. 

A high-profile step was the purchase of over 20,000 Chromebooks for grades kindergarten through 12. Students lacking internet access are getting hotspot devices too, to ensure they can connect. 

And even with this process, there have been bumps. At some schools, like Parkwood Elementary, Chromebook shipments have been delayed. 

Achieving an equitable experience for almost 33,000 students is a far greater job than merely giving each a device and internet access, however. Teachers have to redesign courses, students need to master their devices, and when the technology fails or things break, money must be available for repairs and replacements. 

The library at Riverside High School was converted into a staging area for for digital-equipment hand outs this week. Staff wrapped devices for students. Photo by Henry Haggart

With the support of community members and Durham Public Schools Foundation, schools like Lakewood Elementary are hustling to figure out what an effective online school and school community looks like.

Without the school bus picking students up each morning and the energy of students at recess vibrating through the neighborhood, Principal James Hopkins has to find a new way to connect his Lakewood community. 

To do so, he is breaking down school-opening preparations into action items. His first task: calling all Lakewood families.  

Families received a call by Tuesday from Lakewood to check in about the upcoming year, understand any concerns or extraneous needs they have, and inform them of their time slot to pick up Chromebooks from the school.  

Open house did not feature the typical classroom tours or teacher meet and greet. Instead families used their student’s device to log onto Zoom. 

The next action steps are the most complicated – navigating online teaching. 

Lakewood teachers have had to adapt to Canvas, the learning management platform DPS is using across all schools, Hopkins said. Canvas will serve as a home base, where teachers can create lesson plans, grade books, online quizzes and other materials for their students to access. 

Next, Hopkins says teachers must mentally prepare themselves to connect from afar. 

Rather than pulling students aside to sound out tricky words, teachers will now have to improvise. Maybe they call students one-on-one, or maybe they slow the lesson plan down from the beginning.  

“It’s something we were never trained to do, something that in our wildest dreams, we may not have believed that we would be doing. And so, that’s much easier said than done,” he said. 

To help district schools, the Durham Public Schools Foundation has launched a $1.5 million fundraising campaign called “Accelerating Digital Equity.” 

The campaign has four main focuses. They include training teachers, raising money for ongoing technology needs, supporting students, especially those with additional needs such as bilingual technology support in a district where over 5,000 students enrolled as English language learners in 2018-2019.

Providing community spaces for students to learn from if they are unable to do so at home is the last goal. The learning centers, announced this week, will be a supervised, socially-distant environment for students who need it. 

These four components are needed to build a learning ecosystem, the setting in which students are able to learn successfully, said Katie Wright, the foundation’s development and communications specialist. 

“If you have the device but you don’t have these other supports in place, it’s not going to be quality, remote learning experience, and that’s what students need to not fall behind,” she said. 

In 2018, the US Census Bureau estimated over 12,000 people in Durham county had no internet access, and over 11,000 people relied on their smartphone as their only device. This alone diminishes all ability to learn virtually from home. 

“In Durham because of our geography and the concentration of population that we have, the issue is much more about affordability for people connecting to the internet — whether or not it’s available, is much less of an issue,” said Fogle, who now works with Digital Durham, which promotes digital inclusion. 

To spread word of the campaign to keep students online, the foundation has identified  “accelerators,” volunteers who are willing to spread word of the effort with friends, family and community groups. 

Getting Chromebooks into the hands of students and families needing them is only one step to delivering meaningful online instruction. Photo by Henry Haggart

The foundation also created the Durham HOPE Network, a database of free community resources available now to DPS schools and families. This includes anything from free tutoring sessions to information on event spaces available for small, socially distant gatherings.

To put all the puzzle pieces together, teachers will need to lean on each other, said Hopkins. Each year he shares a theme with the Lakewood community. This year it is one word: Together.

“It’s like going down a road that no one’s ever traveled down. There are going to be six boulders, all sorts of things in our path that we must be able to move and create together,” he said.

All this effort in the midst of a pandemic may bring lasting improvements to Durham even when this coronavirus outbreak is a memory. 

“We have an opportunity to create an equitable situation where all of our students are getting digital literacy and their families are able to have careers that require that,” Wright said.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: Riverside High School Principal Tonya Williams Leathers helped hand out Chromebooks to students this week. Photo by Henry Haggart