With fewer than 1,600 students of Baldwin County Schools opting for in-person instruction, the start to the 2020-21 school year was sure to be unlike any other.
The local public school system gave families the option of sending their children back to school traditionally or attending virtually in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the Baldwin County School District (BCSD), which is used to housing around 5,000 students, only sees about one-third of that number coming into its buildings daily.
Principals and program directors shared their experiences from the first couple of weeks of school Tuesday at the September board of education meeting, held in-person for just the second time since going virtual in March. The meeting was also streamed online to allow the public access.
Tracy Clark, principal at K-2 Lakeview Primary, was first to give her report to board members.
“At Lakeview Primary we have had probably one of the absolute best starts that we have ever had,” said Clark. “I cannot speak highly enough about my staff as well as our students. They have really risen to the challenge. We don’t really have issues with masks. They’re still working on social distancing, but you can teach little kids how to social distance on the playground equipment.”
Clark highlighted the work of her teachers educating students virtually. Since so few students are in the buildings, schools have assigned some teachers to the virtual realm so the children get to work with a familiar, local face. The Lakeview Primary principal also mentioned some of the more logistical changes, like morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up, saying those processes are going smoothly.
“It’s almost scary how things have worked so well,” said Clark.
Midway Hills Primary Principal Tara Burney used a portion of her time to brag on her students. The first days of school were very different as parents were not allowed to walk their children to their classrooms.
“Our students are great,” the K-2 principal said. “I think parents are sometimes afraid that kids aren’t able to take care of themselves, but if you drop them off at the front door, they walk down the hallway to their classrooms just fine.”
Moving into the upper elementary schools, Lakeview Academy Principal Dr. Shawne Holder gave her staff a challenge in the lead-up to students’ first day. Children had basically been stuck in their homes since March, so she wanted school to be something they looked forward to. One way of doing that was to have the teachers do a hallway decorating contest, which helped create a fun environment for the students amid all the uncertainty.
“I wanted it to be epic when the kids came back,” said Holder. “They hadn’t been at school in several months, so I wanted it to be a beautiful place for them to be.”
New to Baldwin County Schools this year is Midway Hills Academy Principal Dr. Eric Carlyle, who is originally from Twin City, Ga. He used a portion of his time to explain how his school staff is making time for parents of virtual learners to come into the building so they can be taught ways to navigate the technological learning platforms since they play such a big role in remote learning.
“I’m really proud of our community and the collective effort from everyone to make sure we’re working to make the most of this situation we currently find ourselves in,” said Carlyle.
Oak Hill Middle School looks very different this year for a couple of reasons. First, the building received a top-to-bottom renovation over the summer with everything from new floors to a new roof and HVAC system. The project was paid for through local E-SPLOST (education special purpose local option sales tax) dollars. Second, the school that normally houses more than 1,000 students only has about 260 who opted for in-person instruction. Oak Hill Assistant Principal Jeremiah Bundrage, filling in at the board meeting for Principal Daymond Ray, shared that the number of teachers administering virtual learning was increased due to the large number of students who selected that route.
Baldwin High School is in a position similar to that of the middle school, a very large building that now hosts a mere fraction of the students it is used to. BHS Assistant Principal Dr. Allen Gray filled in for Principal Jason Flanders Tuesday, and thanked school district personnel for their support in the start to this unusual school year. Gray said that BHS students and teachers are settling into their routines, and the safety protocols put in place are being followed.
“We realize that we must remain flexible and ready to adjust throughout this very challenging school year,” added Gray. “We are very grateful for the research, planning and hard work that has made us successful to this point.”
Baldwin County School District program directors also took their turns at sharing with the board. Dr. Runnee Sallad, director of Georgia College Early College, said that her program, which operates on the Georgia College campus, only has about 40 students attending in-person. Teachers are doing synchronous learning in their classrooms, meaning they are teaching both the in-person and virtual students at the same time thanks to live video streaming.
“If you visit us, you will see teachers actually engaging with students on the computer and in the classroom,” Sallad said. “The students are also engaging with their teacher and their classmates. Our goal is that our students do not skip a beat and that no one is left behind, so we felt that it was important to provide instruction from the actual teacher whether the students are on-campus or remote.”
Similar reports were given by heads of the Baldwin Success Academy, the school district’s new alternative school program, and the Early Learning Center. ELC director Lori Smith said that her school had about 80 students doing virtual learning at the start of the year, but five or six per week are coming back to in-person as comfort levels grow.
“Thank you everybody for your leadership and our district leaders as well for supporting our schools,” Baldwin County School Superintendent Dr. Noris Price said once all administrators were done. “It truly has been a collaborative effort in order to open our schools safely.”
BOE Chair Lyn Chandler gave some kudos to the district staff as well.
“I’ve looked at a lot of news reports and discussion throughout not only the state of Georgia, but throughout the country,” Chandler said. “I’ve listened to all the problems, concerns and difficulties they’ve had whether it was lack of Chromebooks or lack of protective equipment. We were well-prepared and way ahead. … Congratulations to all of you for a job well done.”