In the midst of a statewide (and national) debate on returning to in-person learning, Edgecombe County Public Schools (ECPS) brought middle and high school students back in person on Jan. 26 for the first time since March 2020. Despite climbing COVID-19 cases after the holidays, the Edgecombe County School Board voted on Jan. 6 to open middle and high schools to in-person learning for any students who wanted it. Elementary schools in the county have been back in person since the fall.
“I think it’s an adjustment for everyone, but I think that teachers have missed kids and it feels good to have kids back in the building,” said Jamilah Bullock, multi-classroom leader at North Edgecombe High School. “There is a spirit and energy of joy and excitement.”
“It’s been really inspiring,” SouthWest Edgecombe High School Principal Lauren Lampron shared, “because it’s interesting the work we did semester one, seeing it come to fruition semester two.”
About 55% of students district-wide have chosen in-person learning according to Erin Swanson, director of innovation for ECPS, with the remaining 45% choosing to stay completely remote. At the majority of middle and high schools, students are in person four days a week and virtual one day a week. Two high schools, North Edgecombe and Edgecombe Early College, are offering a hybrid schedule where students are in person two days a week.
While a snowfall meant schools had to return to virtual learning for two days during the first week students came back in person, everything else has gone relatively smoothly, said Lampron and North Edgecombe High School Principal Donnell Cannon.
Edgecombe County middle and high schools have benefitted from the lessons learned by the elementary schools that went back in person in the fall.
“Because we’ve had other schools go back before us, we were able to really see the guidance, including what our elementary schools did,” Lampron said. “So just reaching out to principals to say, ‘What’s the best practice? What do you recommend?'”
They also have been proactive in planning the return to in person learning, Bullock said, and at both schools, it’s been a team effort.
“Our biggest priorities are efficiency and safety,” Bullock said, which led them to create a hybrid schedule where students are in person two days a week. “We knew that if we had all kids every day in our classrooms, we would not be able to safely distance,” she said.
Lampron and Cannon both emphasized the need to be open to feedback and rapidly adjust plans in response. Students at SouthWest Edgecombe told one teacher, Takisha Jones, that the hallways were too crowded when classes transitioned. Jones brought that feedback to Lampron, who worked with the teachers to come up with a zoned hallway approach that would leave fewer students transitioning at one time.
“As long as we have the spirit of curiosity about us — we don’t necessarily know what is the way, but we know we’re willing to try different things — it feels really good,” Lampron said.
Teachers were both nervous and excited to be back in person, both Lampron and Swanson said.
“It’s just that nervousness of wanting to make sure not only they’re safe, but that it is going both ways — they don’t want to be the person that would introduce a virus to the school system,” Lampron said. “I also think that everyone’s super conscious [that] we have our own families and loved ones at home, and so we want to make sure that while we’re pouring into and serving our community, we’re also protecting our own families.”
“I was very nervous at first,” said Jones. “But of course, since I’ve got low numbers, it hasn’t made me feel that uncomfortable.” Jones has a combination of in-person classes and virtual classes. She said she feels better because students are not eating lunch and having to take off their masks in her classroom, and it is cleaned at the end of every day.
One of the biggest fears before reopening, Lampron said, was that some students would refuse to wear masks, but that has not been the case.
“They just really want to be back in school, and so they’re willing to meet us with some expectations of, what are we going to do to do this safely? I truly appreciate that,” she said.
Bullock echoed that sentiment. “I feel like everyone is trying to protect each other and take care of each other, and it feels good,” she said.
Another challenge across the district, Swanson said, has been having enough staff due to some having to quarantine. If staff are exposed to someone with a positive COVID-19 test or receive a positive test themselves, they have to quarantine at home for 14 days. If teachers are not sick, they can still teach virtually, however the return to in person learning and teachers who are actually sick means schools have to get creative with staffing. Both Cannon and Lampron are helping teach to cover for staff who are out.
“Our crew has been really flexible,” Cannon said. “Everyone’s just jumping in, and it’s really special.”
The hybrid schedule at North Edgecombe High means the classes are smaller for those in person, which Bullock said has been a good thing for both teachers and students.
“[Teachers] are able to do more targeted support for kids,” she said, highlighting the importance of individualized support after many students struggled learning online the first semester.
Bullock said around 65-70% of North Edgecombe students are back in person. “A lot of kids recognized that being here on campus without all the extra things going on at home, it was helpful to be here, so a lot of kids chose to be here,” she said.
Two North Edgecombe students, both juniors, said they had struggled with online learning. Becky, who is taking online college classes this semester, said it’s been harder for her because she feels like she has to teach herself and doesn’t have as many opportunities to get support and ask questions.
Tanauriah, who said she is normally an A/B student, said her grades were all over the place during COVID. “To be honest, I’m not a good learner being virtual,” she said. “I like to be in class.”
Both students are excited to be back in person.
“I feel good about it,” Tanauriah said. “I was ready to come back.” Becky agreed.
Editor’s note: Donnell Cannon is on the EducationNC’s Board of Directors.