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Posts tagged as “Schools”

“A lot of hugs and welcomes”: A year-round school resumes after a (brief) summer break


At 7:35 a.m. on July 18, a line of traffic winds down a tree-lined road out to the highway. Impatient passengers peer out the child-locked windows, clutching lunchboxes to their chests with anxious excitement. As they arrive at their destination, the car doors open and children pour out onto the drop-off circle. Parents say (sometimes tearful) goodbyes to their little ones. The students steel themselves for the next six and a half hours, their return to year-round school at Easley Elementary School after five weeks of summer. They take deep breaths, grab the straps of their backpacks, and run inside. 

The Easley kindergarten teachers stand at attention by the entrance, armed with smiles and waves waiting to greet their former students. Kindergarten won’t start until later in the week, giving the teachers the freedom to serve as the welcome committee for the arriving first through fifth graders. 

As the excited students stumble through the propped-open double doors into the central lobby, they are met with a chorus of “Welcome back! Hello! Good morning!” Teachers and administrators call them each by name and compliment their backpacks and lunchboxes. 

“It’s been great seeing all the smiling faces,” says Jennifer Hauser, Easley’s principal since 2015. “It’s a lot of hugs and welcomes.”

As she speaks, a little girl in a pink sparkly backpack (with a matching lunchbox) runs up to one of the teachers and hugs her tightly around the waist, chattering something in the excited language only kids can speak. 

The students aren’t the only ones excited to see the teachers. A woman walks two girls through the door, holding them by the hand, when she sees one teacher waiting by the door and her hands fly to her face. She shrieks with  happiness, and the two embrace.

“It’s a really good community school,” Hauser said of the 459-student magnet school, “and it really is like a family.”

At 7:42, the first bell rings through the wide halls. Welcome signs plaster the white walls between children’s artwork and motivational posters touting confidence, creativity, and compassion. The linoleum floors hold that clean first-day gleam. 

Five students weave through a maze of cinder block hallways toward the principal’s office, but they aren’t in trouble. At the end of the hall is a makeshift library, boxes and shelves tucked away in a corner. Principal Hauser pulls books from the shelves too high for the young children to reach. 

It is an Easley tradition– “birthday books.” When a student has a birthday, their name is announced over the loudspeaker and they are invited to come pick out a book from the principal’s special library to keep. The first day back from break is special, because all summer birthdays are celebrated at once.

Hauser points out the “first-grade favorites,” like Ramona and Beezus, to a young girl digging through the shelves. A third-grader shyly takes a chapter book from a box before darting off to class.

Back in the hallways, teachers hand off papers and files like batons in a relay, dodging students sprinting to get to class before they’re marked late. No post-summer break rust in these corridors.

At 7:44, the second bell is imminent. A young boy named Sawyer runs up to Principal Hauser, obviously distressed, and stands bashfully with his hands behind his back. “Principal Hauser,” he says earnestly, “You forgot to say the pledge!” 

Principal Hauser gasps with dramatic concern and turns to her assistant principal: “Mr. B., we forgot the pledge!” 

Jeff Bugajski laughs: “Who reminded you? Was it Sawyer? Of course it was.” 

At 7:45, the second bell rings, and suddenly the halls are empty. Many classroom doors are a collage of stickers with the names of students, a helpful tool for lost children looking for their new homes for the year. Amiable clamor emanates from a classroom as a door swings open for a student clutching a hall pass to run to the bathroom.

When second period rolls around, single-file lines of students emerge, hugging close to the walls. Kids wave to each other across the hall,  careful to use their “inside voices.” A teacher walking past salutes the group with a thumbs up,  greeting one student with a sneaky fist bump. 

Fourth-grade teacher Daniella Clay’s classroom is freshly decorated. A bulletin board is pinned with colorful posters holding places for “Amazing work coming soon!” The corner library is stocked with books impeccably placed on the shelves, soon to be mussed by the hands of students.  Clumps of desks are covered with brand-new school supplies, some piled in tall towers made by ambitious young builders.

A mural high above the floor reads, “Today is a good day to have a good day!”

Clay’s new class is in “specials” this period, learning about books and computers. Her bouncing blonde curls and kind smile radiate excitement.

Clay has been preparing for the first day with a team of other teachers and staff, planning activities and ideas to explore with students.

“We want them to feel that sense of community on day one,” she says.

Clay gushes about the community at Easley. She says that the year-round school schedule, used by only five of Durham’s 55 public schools, helps to keep teachers and students close. They are only apart for five weeks in the summer rather than the typical school’s nine. 

“All the teachers know all the kids,” says Clay. “We’re all their teachers.”

In Raymond Alban’s classroom, the thrill of the first day has students prattling on, but they quiet down quickly (though still squirming) when Alban says, “All eyes on me!”

Alban, a man with a comforting presence dressed in shorts and a polo, has been a teacher at Easley Elementary for 32 years. He proudly points out those in his classroom he already knows. He has had many of their siblings in past years.  Most notably, in his first year at the school, he taught one student’s mother.

His classroom is decorated with sight words on the cabinets (D is for Determined), and a colorful rug covers the floor where the class has morning meetings and “carpet time.” His 19 students work on coloring pictures of train cars and locomotives. Earlier this morning, they read one of Alban’s annual staples: The Little Engine that Could

“I tell them, there’s only one thing I ask,” Alban says, “and it is that, just like the Little Engine, they try.” 

The first day, to Alban, is vital.There are many standards to establish, like when to listen and how to walk in the hallways, but there are also important things for teachers to make clear.  “The first day is about setting the tone for the class,” he says, “a foundation on how we’re gonna learn.” 

For one, Alban promises to never yell at his students. He aims to make his classroom a safe and exciting space for them. If they love school, he says, they will be ready to learn. 

When a student asks him for a second coloring page because she cut out her locomotive wrong, he explains another standard: it is always okay to make mistakes.

As the day goes on, the students’ single-file lines get straighter, their binders heavier. But their excited chatter and smiles do not fade– it is still the first day of school.

Above: Bright, upbeat decorations greeted students at Easley Elementary, a year-round school that reopened on July 18 after a five-week summer break.  Daniella Clay motivates her fourth-graders with a sign that reads, “Today is a good day to have a good day!” Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal.

Durham School of the Arts may move to northern Durham

Durham School of the Arts is grappling with the choice between holding onto history and beginning a new era. 

The arts magnet school,  a fixture in downtown Durham since 1995,  has been a source of pride in Durham for years. Now it may be relocating to a new campus in northern Durham. 

That has left parents and community members with lots of unanswered questions.

Jeannine Sato, a DSA parent and PTSA volunteer, has been active with the school for two years. She supports the move and funding a new campus for DSA but says that parents she has spoken with have mixed feelings about the relocation.

“Part of the charm of DSA is its history, its location in downtown, and its connection to a lot of the arts downtown,” she said. “But I do have concerns about how we could safely renovate it with students in session.

“It just seems logistically challenging, very expensive, and there will probably be lots of unforeseen challenges. Building a campus seems like the most logical solution.”

Others, such as Karalyn Colopy, a DSA parent and Trinity Park resident, favor keeping DSA right where it is. 

 “I love that there’s a school in downtown Durham,” she said. “It would be a big loss if we lost a school campus right in the heart of the city.”

The current sprawling campus of eight buildings stretches across three blocks of Durham, housing 1,655 students from grades 6 to 12. The school boasts rigorous academics in addition to a focus on visual and performing arts.    

The campus, previously home to Durham High School, includes some buildings built in 1922. Durham High was struggling in the 1990s, before DSA opened in 1995. DSA transformed the campus into a vibrant school attended by students from around the county, who gain entrance to the arts magnet school through a lottery system.  

The concept of a new campus for DSA has been under discussion for some time. The county provided design and discovery funds for the project in early 2021. In May of 2021, the school board hired a third party to assess the viability of the current DSA campus. The consultant concluded that the campus was not adequate to house a school of the arts.

The Board of Education decided in October to pursue funding for a new DSA campus in northern Durham County and submitted the proposal to the Board of County Commissioners. The commissioners will decide this month whether or not to include the new DSA building as part of an upcoming fall bond referendum.

If funding for the new campus is approved by the county commissioners, Durham residents will have the opportunity to vote on funding for DSA as part of the proposed bond referendum on November 8. 

If approved, the Board of Education anticipates that construction will begin in June 2023. They hope that the campus will be completed by May 2025. 

The proposed location for the new campus, a 58 acre-site on Duke Homestead Road, was purchased in 2010 from Duke University. Unlike the current campus, it is isolated from major thoroughfares and provides opportunity for future expansion, said Julius Monk, deputy superintendent of operational services for Durham Public Schools.

In a February 23 Board of Education meeting, Fredrick Davis, director of capital construction and planning for the Durham school system, highlighted the historical significance of the current campus, but also pointed to flaws with the building.“The current structure limits the class sizes, limits natural light and really does not lend itself to the modernizations that we need in order to attract the best and brightest,” he said.

Sato also cited several structural and maintenance issues with the campus, including electricity outages. “There are definitely some basement classrooms that feel like a dark dungeon,” she said.

 In a recent interview, Monk highlighted accessibility issues with the current campus, and the age of the building. He also raised concerns about the size of the campus , explaining that DSA was designed for about 1,200-1,400 students. 

 Parents and administrators are also concerned about the traffic generated by the school’s location on two major thoroughfares. Traffic backups often cause significant bottlenecks through the campus and into the city streets beyond, inconveniencing drivers and posing a danger to schoolchildren, some said. 

 Natalie Beyer, a Board of Education member, said new North Carolina Department of Transportation regulations would require the entire car line to remain on the DSA campus and not overflow out into the roadways. “That site is landlocked and there’s not a possibility for us to afford more land or close city streets,” she said. “Those roads are major arteries.”

Beyer stressed the importance of receiving input from the community throughout the relocation process. She says as soon as the board knows if the county has approved funding for the new school, the school board will revisit the issue and welcome public comment.

A big concern shared by parents and community members is what will happen to the current DSA buildings if the school moves. 

Allen Wilcox is a Trinity Park resident who lives one block away from the current DSA campus. He says DSA has been a source of pride for his neighborhood. 

“I just hope that the old buildings are used in a way that still benefits the community,” he said. 

Both Beyer and Monk said that the board is considering moving New Tech High School, which currently shares a campus with Hillside High School, to the current DSA campus. 

As Hillside expands, Monk says, “it’s becoming harder to run both of those programs on the same campus.” 

New Tech High School has a student population of only 285 students. Given that, Monk said the current DSA location could also potentially accommodate central office space or student testing facilities. 

Colopy wants reassurance that the older DSA buildings will be preserved if the school moves to a new location.

“We don’t have that much history here in Durham,” Colopy said. “This is our history and what makes us Durham.”

Above: Photos of Durham School of the Arts by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal 

Hillside High production captures the cost of gun violence

The trouble started when Hillside High School student Logan Lewis hopped off the stage and into the audience wielding a fake handgun. 

Gunshots sounded, and a student actor on stage crumpled to the floor, dropping another fake handgun. The victim’s friend picked up the gun and chased Lewis to his home where he pounded his fists on the door, screaming for his mother. More gunshots rang out, and Lewis’ mother opened the door to find her son dead on her doorstep. 

In the blink of an eye, the fictional community became a crime scene: Yellow tape wrapped around the porch and desperate sobs from huddled family members pierced the air, echoed by sniffles from the audience. 

It was all made up, an emotional scene toward the end of Hillside’s production of an original play “State of Urgency.” 

But the play also reflects actual events. “State of Urgency” originated as a response to Durham’s worsening gun violence problem. It also draws upon the real-life experiences of Hillside students, linking the experience of street violence with classroom struggles. 

The play was performed three times over the weekend of November 14-16, and discussions are underway about presenting the play to other school audiences around Durham in the future.

A student-teacher collaboration

Hillside Drama Director Wendell Tabb wrote the play together with 16 Hillside students, including 11th-grader and Drama Club President Aniya Lowe.

“I got emotional at times,” Lowe said. “It’s really the nicest people to go through the worst things…They’re speaking about it to you and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, this happened to you and I didn’t even know’.”

The play—the school’s first in-person production since the pandemic began—featured powerful monologues drawn from students’ personal experiences, as well as moving original songs and dance numbers. It addressed a range of issues, from colorism and school bullying to police brutality and Black-on-Black violence, forming a collage of the harsh realities feeding the growth of gun violence in Durham. 

A call to action

Act One of “State of Urgency” opens with a flurry of emotions: Students, all wearing t-shirts with taglines such as “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” yell out desires for peace, safety and mental health support. The voices crescendo into a collective question, perhaps pointed at the police, the government, the adults in the room, or all three: “Where are you?” 

It is the first of many appeals to the audience. 

The play’s action takes place on a city block, with a corner store, community recreation center and living quarters. 

The audience first sees the block as it was in 1979: unified, safe and lively. Things quickly deteriorate as flashing lights and eerie music bring us into the present, where the block feels isolated and unsafe.

Scenes of police brutality follow, along with scenes of school strife, where colorism and materialism lead to bullying and exclusion. 

Act Two opens with the students wandering the block, lamenting the violence they are living through. 

The scenes that follow look beyond the world of high school, including a depiction of a traffic stop gone fatally awry. A traffic officer mistakes a man’s phone for a gun and shoots the man as passersby capture the tragic death on camera. The stage sweeps into a Black Lives Matter protest, with students hoisting signs and chanting.

The play also spotlights intergenerational debates over police reform and the value of protesting.

“Preserve the good and weed out the bad,” the cast says in unison, summarizing the debate.

The play wraps up with the students returning to the stage and imploring the audience to look within and be the change they want to see.

“This was a call to action,” Oral Chinfloo, a Hillside parent said after the performance. “I hope people reflect on what they just witnessed.”

Fiction and real life

The play pays homage to civil rights leaders of the past, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. 

Outside the theater, Tabb also highlighted local activism. In the building’s foyer, organizations such as Bull City United and Guns Down Hearts Up set up tables devoted to their work against gun violence. The Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt stretched along the foyer, holding over 800 names, each written on a cloth square. One square held the name of Robert Antone Baines, who was fatally shot in February 2021. His mother, Brenda Young, stood quietly nearby.

Before the play began, Tabb welcomed Young to the stage. Young shared how senseless violence took the lives of three of her family members. She begged members of the audience to help end local gun violence. 

“I grieve every day,” Young said. “Don’t wait ’til it hits you… You do not want to go through this pain.”

Tabb then asked any victims of gun violence in the audience to stand. Six people rose.

After the play, as students greeted their families outside the theater for congratulatory hugs, a few people congregated around the memorial quilt. Young stood over the quilt, looking at the square with her son’s name on it. Closer to the middle of the quilt,  a young dancer wept quietly over another cloth square. 

“Even though this is make-believe for us in terms of theater, this is not make-believe in real life,” Tabb said in an interview afterward. “It’s not a game. And as a community, we can’t treat it as a game.”

Above, Brenda Young points to her son’s name on the Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt, on display at Hillside High School during the production of ‘State of Urgency’. Photo by Olivia Olsher – The 9th Street Journal 

Teaching through the pandemic, she tells her 4th-graders: ‘You are capable and you are smart’

Shutting down

On March 13, 2020, only one hour and 45 minutes remained in the school day when Lindsay Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher at Forest View Elementary, learned that all Durham Public Schools were shutting down.

Teachers immediately wondered what this would mean for their students, and for DPS families. They sent parent volunteers running to their copy machines, to prepare as much school material as possible to send home with students. They frantically bagged up the healthy snacks donated each week by a local nonprofit, so the food would not go to waste when students left the school. 

When school buses arrived to take the students home, no one knew how long they would be staying there. 

“We had to make sure — if this is our last moment with our kids, for whatever length of time — they have everything that we can give them,” Johnson recalled. “We all hugged our kids and saw them off to the buses, not knowing what this was going to mean for the months ahead.”

Johnson, 28 years old, has been a teacher for seven years. As her students drove away that afternoon, she figured that DPS would just have to reschedule spring break. This pandemic would blow over, and the school community would be back together in about a week. 

One year later, students had yet to return to Forest View Elementary.

Transitioning to the new normal

While DPS staff developed plans to continue learning during the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson kept in touch with her 21 students and their parents via telephone. She checked in to make sure they were OK and gathered information on what resources each family needed for remote instruction. Educational materials were distributed by mail and at scheduled pick-up locations. 

Students had learning packets to complete each week. Not every student had access to a device that would allow for classroom Zoom sessions, so teachers stayed in touch with them individually. 

But some students couldn’t Zoom or video chat; for a geometry lesson, Johnson texted pictures of drawings to them.

Johnson often taught each lesson three different times, depending on the group of students and their means of learning. 

Most of her students had family computers or parents’ smartphones, so she scheduled Zoom lessons with them. For other students, Johnson taught the same lesson using the mobile app Duo to video chat. But some students couldn’t Zoom or video chat; for a geometry lesson, Johnson texted pictures of drawings to them.

Forest View Elementary fourth graders at recess. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Teachers offered whatever emotional or academic support they could. Johnson met with her students about their packets three times a week for an hour and a half. 

“Some of us were leading morning meeting sessions, and really focusing on social and emotional learning. Some of us tried to create a semblance of normalcy for students and went more of the academic route,” Johnson said. 

“[The protocol] was: however you can get connected with your students, whatever you need to do to provide whatever it is they need — academics or social and emotional — do what you can. It varied from building to building and class to class of what that looked like.”

Even with the new difficulties this pandemic year would bring, Lindsay Johnson kept her focus on making each child feel confident and successful. 

She had known she wanted to be a teacher since she was a student herself, growing up in Fayetteville. Her seventh-grade teacher pushed her out of her comfort zone by encouraging her to answer questions in class. 

“You have the ability to achieve whatever it is you want, and I’m going to help you build those skill sets to do what you want to do in your life.”

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not smart, I’m not that kid,’” Johnson recalled. “But she continued to show me that I was capable and I was smart. It doesn’t feel good to feel that you’re not smart. 

“I want to be the person that shows every student I come across, that you are capable and you are smart. You have the ability to achieve whatever it is you want, and I’m going to help you build those skill sets to do what you want to do in your life.”

With her fourth-graders, Johnson held social hang-out days, math lessons, reading lessons and science demonstrations. She hosted a book club for students who wanted more interaction with each other.

Her nine- and ten-year-olds were accustomed to using technology for games and entertainment, not for school. The transition to remote learning was difficult at first because Johnson had to teach her students how to use technology in a way to help them learn. She taught them the basics of finding links, understanding a URL bar, and how to refresh a web page. 

In August, the start of the 2020-2021 school year paired Johnson with a new group of fourth-graders — children she’d never had the chance to meet in-person before the pandemic hit. It posed an even greater challenge for building relationships. 

“Connecting with my students was one of my biggest worries,” Johnson said. “Being a fourth grade teacher, I normally see the kids come down the hall, and I normally see faces.”

Each teacher at Forest View Elementary holds a 30-minute meeting with their class at the start of each day, and this has helped Johnson connect with her students. The meetings are focused on community-building, with teachers sharing meaningful quotations and asking students about how they are feeling. Sometimes a school counselor will join the session.

“Sometimes the topic of the day hits really close to home, and students need more time to process and think about how they’re feeling,” Johnson said. “We take that moment to address where students are and how they’re feeling — because if they’re not processing those emotions, then starting the day would be a disservice to them. If we were to just start straight into academics, I think we would’ve seen a lot of kids disengaged.”

Teacher Lindsay Johnson with her fourth graders at Forest View Elementary. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

The constraints of remote instruction have made it difficult to cover as much academic material as in the past, she said. Teaching computer skills and focusing on emotional support takes time away from the standard subjects of reading, writing, math, science and social studies. 

“If the students aren’t emotionally prepared or feeling supported, they’re not going to be in a head space to learn academically,” Johnson said. “There are so many other factors that we had to account for in this virtual setting that decrease the amount that we can actually cover in a school year, if we were to remain virtual versus being in the classroom.”

“I would rather ensure every child has a foundation in math than to throw everything I got at them, math-skill-wise, and see what happens.”

Rather than rush to teach her students each individual skill in fourth-grade math, she slowed down to focus more on the fundamentals.

“Math is so intricate, with so many skills and foundational pieces. So if you don’t have the foundational understanding and you continue to build on it, that house is gonna crumble,” Johnson said. “I would rather ensure every child has a foundation in math than to throw everything I got at them, math-skill-wise, and see what happens.”

Returning to in-person learning

When the DPS school board decided on March 2 to begin returning to in-person instruction, educators worried about the risk of increased exposure to the coronavirus. Johnson’s phone was flooded with text messages from fellow teachers, sharing resources on places they could get vaccinated. 

Forest View Elementary resumed in-person instruction on March 15. Two days later, Johnson received her second dose of the vaccine. 

“It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “Not that I let my guard down, because safety is still the number-one concern. It sounds weird, but it was like I wasn’t scared of death or the prospect of getting terribly ill any more.”

According to the DPS COVID Dashboard, Forest View Elementary has had zero positive COVID-19 cases since reopening, however DPS elementary schools as a whole have had 27 cases among students and 15 cases among staff since March 2021. 

“It’s been really good to see students in the building,” Johnson said. “You can tell that they’re enjoying themselves. But … students are slowly but surely realizing that just because we’re in the building doesn’t mean things are gonna be like how they were prior to COVID.”

Although students and teachers are together again at school, they wear their masks and maintain social distance in the classroom and on the playground. Collaborative work, which normally would entail a table group with shared supplies that students would use to create something together, is often virtual.  

The challenges of virtual learning are not over. Johnson is teaching a hybrid fourth-grade class now, with 10 students in person and 12 online. 

“I’m still accounting time for making sure the students online feel connected and part of the classroom, and making sure I’m dividing my attention among both groups equitably,” Johnson said. “It’s a delicate dance. It’s definitely a dance that can be exhausting at the end of the day.”

“We’re still all in this together, even though there are some students who are physically in the buildings and some students who are at home.”

Johnson continues to use virtual platforms in her physical classroom. The students with her in the classroom have their laptops and tablets, and they often connect online to collaborate with students who are learning from home. 

Forest View Elementary School reopened its classrooms, with social distance procedures in place, on March 15. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“So we’re still all in this together, even though there are some students who are physically in the buildings and some students who are at home,” Johnson said.

The challenges that the pandemic has posed on the education system are strong, but Johnson says she is still working based upon her belief that every child has a right to a quality education. 

“Fourth graders are like sponges soaking everything up,” Johnson said. “It gives me a sense of hope for what our future can be.” 

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at

At top:  Fourth grade teacher Lindsay Johnson with her students at Forest View Elementary School.  Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Schewel lauds DPS teachers and worries about board members

Mayor Steve Schewel expressed confidence in Durham Public Schools teachers Monday as they began welcoming some children back to their classrooms for the first time in a year, but he said he was concerned about threats against school board members who voted — over the objections of teachers and parents worried about COVID-19 risks — to reopen the schools.

“Our teachers in Durham are so dedicated, and they are going to work their hardest to make this a fantastic experience for their students,” Schewel said in an interview. “Still, this is very difficult to have a classroom where you have to teach both in-person and remotely. It is really hard. It is still going to be an imperfect spring of schooling in Durham and across the country.”

The difficulties of balancing remote and in-person teaching caused hesitation over the decision to reopen. Happi Adams, a Jordan High School teacher, said she was disappointed that high schools will let students return to in-person learning this semester, rather than finish the year with online-only instruction. 

“I don’t think in-person is going to a particularly meaningful or warm and connected experience because of the way we have to do things under the COVID safety protocols,” Adams said. “A few of my students from my classes will be in the building with me, and then the majority of the students that I’m teaching will still be interacting with us via Zoom.” 

According to the DPS website, all schools will hold only-online asynchronous learning on “Wellness Wednesdays.” Elementary students will be in person for the other four days a week. Middle and high school students will attend on Mondays-Tuesdays or Thursdays-Fridays, in  three rotating cohorts. 

Elementary schools reopened their classrooms Monday. The four small specialty high schools (City of Medicine Academy, J.D. Clement Early College High School, Middle College at Durham Tech, and New Tech High School) will reopen for a cohort of students Thursday, while the remaining high schools and middle schools will reopen April 8. 

Some teachers and board members had argued that the schools should not reopen until all DPS employees had been fully vaccinated. 

Board members threatened

Disagreement over reopening has led to threats against DPS board members. Mike Lee, the DPS board vice chair, said during a board meeting on March 2 that teachers had threatened him and his family members. Schewel denounced the “vitriolic attacks and even threats” in a statement released last week.

Local law enforcement is investigating one threat from a parent, he said.

“One parent wrote on social media, ‘If my child is that one in a thousand that gets it and develops serious symptoms … I’ll shoot down every member of the DPS school board,’ ” Schewel wrote. “This is horrifying and scary. I denounce this language in the strongest possible terms.”

Schewel expressed concern about the “particularly profound” nature of threats leveled against Black and Brown board members. The school board’s vote to start reopening this week was 4-3, with all four Black members of the board in the majority. The  board’s one Hispanic and two white members favored reopening at a later date.

“A threat like this is so much more threatening to a Black person than to white people because — even if it’s the exact same threat — Black people have so much more often been the victims of people who carry out threats like this,” Schewel said. “We have to acknowledge that, but the threats against anybody are not OK. The anger level that has built up around this is not helpful to our community.” 

Schewel says he hopes Durham residents will “lower the temperature” on their anger and focus their political energy towards progressive fights. In Raleigh, he said, the General Assembly is “undermining public education at every turn” by underfunding schools and underpaying teachers. 

“Durham is a city with a widely shared progressive vision,” Schewel said. “As I expressed in the letter I wrote, 20 miles from here in Raleigh in the General Assembly there are all kinds of things going on which are antithetical to the progressive consensus that we share in Durham. We need to be focusing our political energy not on angry attacks on each other but on doing the work that we need to do to get the state policy that we all agree on here in Durham.” 

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at

At top:  Mayor Schewel: “The threats against anybody are not OK. The anger level that has built up around this is not helpful to our community.” File photo.

School board member decries ‘hate and threats’ from teachers

Mike Lee says he has voted with Durham’s teachers consistently during his seven years on the Durham Public Schools board. But after he and other board members voted to reopen school classrooms that have been closed since March 2020, he says, he was barraged with vitriol, bullying and personal threats from teachers.

“After my vote to open up school on March 15, the hatred, the threats to myself and the mention of my children in a few different comments showed me everything I needed to know,” Lee, the board’s vice chair, said at a school board meeting Tuesday. “Because it was all coming from staff. It was all coming from teachers.”

He said he weighed the health concerns of resuming in-person instruction and sought expert advice before casting his vote, but he was still met with accusations that he “wants our teachers to die.”

“In almost every situation, it has been, ‘With the proper protocols, schools can open,’” Lee said. “But having that opinion apparently calls for hate and threats. That’s where we are here in Durham: ‘You disagree with us, you’re dead to me.’”

In a 4-3 vote Tuesday, the DPS board reaffirmed an earlier decision to begin bringing students and teachers back into their classrooms on March 15, a year after the schools were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some board members wanted to postpone the reopening until April 8, to allow more time for teachers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Teachers became eligible for the vaccine on Feb. 24, and the school district has been working with Durham County and Duke Health to vaccinate 1,000 school personnel per week. 

Board member Matt Sears said teachers had been blindsided by the decision to reopen, and he feared that it would undermine the trust that the DPS board has established with Durham teachers. Delaying the reopening would help teachers, he said.

Teachers’ safety

“For me, this is as much about trust with our staff as it is about the safety factor,” Sears said. “I do believe we can open safely relatively soon. When I look at this district and this trust issue, I see a district that has worked for more than a decade to build something special with our staff and with our teachers. We wanted to be different from the top-down districts that we see around North Carolina.”

The back-and-forth over a start date for reopening has caused anguish among both parents and teachers. Many parents were frustrated because they had already cancelled child care after the board originally decided to begin returning to in-person instruction on March 15. 

“I am very disappointed to hear that the board is considering changing the return to school YET AGAIN,” Katie Rudd of Carlton Crossing Drive said in an email comment to the DPS board. “My family was so hopeful to return to school March 15 after nearly a year at home. This is not a game. Parents and children need follow-through on the existing plan, not a political stunt.”

Lee said he made his decision to reopen as both a board member and a parent. He has witnessed firsthand the toll that online learning can have on DPS students because he has a daughter in eighth grade who is “only a frame” of what she used to be. 

“Do I vote against the interest of my child, who I know needs to be in school? I can’t do that,” Lee said. “As a board member, I look across this district, and I see thousands of students and families who are in the same situation that I am.”

A lack of input around kids’ welfare and mental health during conversations about reopening has left Lee concerned that teachers seem to only be prioritizing themselves, he said.

Students’ wellness

“When I met with the teachers before the emergency meeting, not one word was said about the health and wellness of our students,” Lee said. “It was about what the teachers want.” 

Michelle Burton, the president of the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) and the librarian at Spring Valley Elementary, said teachers are not prioritizing their health for only their benefit. 

“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions, so if teachers are not healthy then they can’t come to work, which means they are not educating kids,” Burton said in an interview Saturday. “So that means you have to keep your workforce healthy, in order to educate students in a consistent way.”

Lee said teachers have tried to shame parents away from returning their children to in-person instruction. 

“Threatening families, threatening board members, attacking them for their opinion and their beliefs,” he said. “That is not organizing.”

Lee did not identify any specific teachers or provide details about threats. He did not respond to the 9th Street Journal’s requests for comment. 

Burton said she was disheartened by Lee’s remarks and did not know which teachers he was referring to. 

“The DAE does not condone bullying of our school board members or any elected officials,” Burton said. “But I don’t know which educators that he speaks of, because he was speaking more in a general, broad sense. I will say that educators have a right to advocate for their students, and they have a right to advocate for their working conditions, but it should be done in a respectful manner.”

Sears, Natalie Beyer and Alexandra Valladares voted to postpone reopening until April 8, but the majority decided to continue with the original March 15 plan. Board chair Bettina Umstead cast the deciding vote and said it was “the most challenging decision” she has made in her life.

Preparations for return

Elementary school students will return to class March 15. Middle and high school students will begin returning April 8. 

According to February 25 results of the parent survey about choosing to return their child to in-person schooling or continue with online, 51% of parents said they would remain with virtual learning, 39% of parents said they would return their children to in-person instruction, and 10% did not respond to the survey. 

DPS is providing cloth masks and face shields, disposable surgical and KN95 masks upon request, spokesman Chip Sudderth said. They are implementing physical distancing signage and other floor markings at six-foot intervals, providing frequent handwashing breaks and hand sanitizer, collaborating with the health department on contact tracing, and disinfecting high-touch areas throughout the day. 

School buses will be disinfected between routes. The staff is being trained on the proper use of personal protective equipment.

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at

At top:  “Not one word was said about the health and wellness of our students,” DPS board member Mike Lee said. “It was about what the teachers want.” 

Parents describe a wrenching year of ‘Zoom fatigue’ as schools prepare to reopen

Mary Barzee’s seven-year-old son, Leo, sits down at their kitchen table to begin another day of online school, a routine he has been stuck in all school year. 

As his teacher starts the lesson, she cannot see that behind the camera her student is crafting paper airplanes and does not have his book open to the correct page. Barzee sits at the kitchen table with Leo, trying to balance working from home and helping her son with online school.  

“This has already gone on for a year, and I am in a pretty desperate situation with my first-grader,” Barzee said in an interview. “He has major Zoom fatigue. He’s regularly crying, and his self-esteem has taken a major hit. It’s a disaster. His teachers are doing the best they can, but they cannot see what’s happening on the other end of the screen.”   

After almost a full year of online instruction, the Durham Public Schools board voted 5-2 Thursday to begin bringing students back into the schools on March 15 — reversing a previous decision to keep classrooms closed for the rest of the school year. The vote came in response to Senate Bill 37, which the General Assembly passed this week. If Governor Roy Cooper signs the bill, all North Carolina school districts will be required to offer in-person instruction for all students. 

Classroom chairs are stacked on desks at Jordan High School, awaiting the return of students. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Teachers want vaccines

Barzee said she will return Leo to in-person learning at George Watts Elementary School as soon as it is available, because he has struggled with virtual learning. At the same time, she acknowledges the concerns of educators who say they should receive coronavirus vaccines before they are asked to return to school.  

“I want to advocate for vaccines for teachers and other school staff who will be going back to teach in person,” Barzee said. “I have hopes that Durham schools can provide safe in-person learning environments for students and teachers, too.”

Reopening schools could save other families from desperate situations. Kristin Cunningham said she had to quit her full-time job and find part-time work that she could do at home, for less money, just so she could oversee the online instruction of three children who are George Watts Elementary students.

“I felt kind of abandoned by the public school system because so many people rely on that system being in place to care for their children and to be able to work,” Cunningham said in an interview. “I work in health care, and I didn’t have the option of working from home.” 

Parents sacrifice careers

Across the country, parents have had to make career sacrifices so that they can help their children with virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This burden most often has fallen on working mothers, who are nearly three times more likely than fathers to stay home and take care of the kids, according to research from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve.

“We’re just barely hanging on,” Barzee said. “Everything to do with my job is dictated by [my son’s] class schedule.”

Many parents are concerned that their young children are forced to spend too much time in front of their computers, when they should be socializing and playing outside. 

“Virtual instruction is not working for my first grader,” Maria Cattani of Clarendon Street said in an email to the DPS board. “Despite heroic attempts by her and the teacher, every day we end up in tears and tantrums. My kid has heart-wrenching meltdowns about [how] she wants to go back to school. She wants to play, she wants to do puzzles, Legos, build forts.” 

Barzee has opted out of virtual art, music, and P.E. classes for her first-grader and his preschool brother. She homeschools those subjects herself, so her boys won’t have to spend their entire day online. 

“Before [the pandemic], we were extremely cautious about screen time,” she said. “We didn’t have a TV in our house. It’s just been really difficult to watch my kids’ attention span diminish.” 

In an email to the DPS board, Pablo Ariel of Clarendon Street described how his six-year-old daughter had a meltdown over her virtual homework. She could not stop sobbing as she repeated over and over, “I just want to go to school. I just want to go to school.” 

“Kids’ voices have been absent from the discussions about reopening,” Ariel said. “Virtual learning for young kids is a failure, and they are suffering.”

For many children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), online instruction is simply not an option. IEPs are special education services tailored to serve children with disabilities or other challenges that might impede their success in school. 

“My son is autistic and will not do Zoom school. So he essentially is receiving no education at all this year from the school system, which I believe to be illegal and a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act,” the parent of a four-year-old boy, who asked to be anonymous to protect the child’s privacy, said in an interview. “I feel disappointed at the lack of creativity or flexibility from the school system. It felt like the needs of neuro-divergent kids were coming in last.”

DPS enrollment has declined

The decision to begin reopening schools could make a crucial difference for enrollment numbers in Durham Public Schools, which lost 2,850 students at the beginning  of the school year. More parents have told DPS officials that they might find other options for their children, such as charter or private schools, unless classroom instruction is restored.

“Virtual school is not working for our child and our family,” Meghan Brown of Inverness Drive said in an email to the DPS board. “We are being forced to change school districts unless Durham changes their mind. Not trying to pressure, but it’s just our reality.”

The DPS website has details of the plan to restore in-person instruction for families that want it. 

K-5 students will attend in-person class every weekday except for “Wellness Wednesday,” which will be remote. Students in grades 6-12 will be divided into three rotating groups so that each group has in-person instruction for two days a week and virtual school for three days. All K-12 students with IEPs have the option for in-person instruction up to four days per week. 

Betting Umstead, the DPS board chair, spoke at Thursday’s Zoom meeting.

The reopening plan includes provisions for personal protective equipment, social distancing and other measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Bettina Umstead, the DPS board chair, said in a news release that students who opt to continue learning from home will help increase the safety for teachers returning to the classrooms.

“If you can and if you are able, it’s important that you keep your students at home so that we can have proper social distancing and support our staff in this plan,” Umstead said. “I want everyone to know that we care deeply, each and every one of us, about every single one of our educators, every single one of our students, and this is not a decision that we make lightly.”

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at

At top:  Ever since they shifted to online instruction last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Durham’s empty schools have longed for the return of teachers and students. File photo by Henry Haggart

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

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.

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

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