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The handcuffs are off: The pandemic presents an opportunity to empower teachers and re-imagine learning

Meet Superintendent John Bryant with Henderson County Public Schools. He caught my attention telling a story about summer school.

The district’s summer school began on June 9, 2021, and served about 2,000 students over six weeks, operating Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.

“We really designed everything to be as little like school as possible,” said Bryant.

With 30 community partners involved in instruction, hands-on, experiential learning opportunities were used to create the feeling of summer camp — even down to the s’mores.

It was fun. Young students watched as Assistant Superintendent Wendy Frye jumped in a shark tank at a local aquarium.

And it was important. High school students recovered more than 600 credits.

Bryant said he knew the district was doing something right when students — including an eighth-grader (let that sink in) — started asking if they could bring friends from their neighborhood.

When teachers said they wished they could structure learning during the school year like they did during summer school, Bryant and Frye asked, “Why can’t you?”

The takeaway? There was no script for summer school during a pandemic. “As soon as we don’t have a script, professional educators do amazing things,” said Bryant.

“To continue to empower them will be really important going forward into the school year,” he realized.

And then the delta variant happened

On Aug. 2, 2021, the Henderson County Board of Public Education voted for masks to be optional, effective Aug. 23, 2021 — the start of school.

At the same meeting, the board approved the superintendent’s recommendation to provide virtual learning options for younger students not able to get the COVID-19 vaccine and older students opting for virtual learning options since masks would be optional.

One week later, on Aug. 9, 2021, the Henderson County Board of Public Education decided “all students, staff, and visitors will be required to wear face coverings indoors at all school facilities when students are scheduled for instruction.”

According to a press release, 19 “school-affected positive cases” had been reported at two elementary schools that started earlier in the summer, and 44 students had been quarantined.

With the decision to require masks, the district cancelled the virtual learning option.

Doing “the next right thing

Pre-pandemic, Bryant said, there was a playbook in education that everybody was expected to follow, and there was not a lot of space for innovation. He used the word “handcuff” to describe the feeling of educators and administrators. Not just in his district, but everywhere.

“What we know to be true about now is we don’t know,” he said. I can see him smile through his mask. He finds that “cool” and “exciting” — and a blessing.

“One of the blessings is, even in our most difficult day, we’ve been given permission to figure it out because there is no right answer,” said Bryant.

“The only right is serve the kids. And serve them well.”

Superintendent John Bryant

With new information about COVID-19 emerging constantly, the superintendent acknowledges it can be scary. But he says he and his team just do the next right thing, then the next right thing, and then the next right thing.

And the next right thing right now is getting his students back in classrooms in schools.

“You gotta come to school

Even if it is challenging, Bryant is excited to be going back to school in person.

When the students returned to classrooms and schools last spring, Bryant said, “we recognized and affirmed, the best thing for every child is face-to- face instruction.”

Remote spaces, he said, “could be supplemental, they facilitated some efficiencies, but they were not substitutes for our most important work.” Virtual learning didn’t work long-term for student’s social and emotional health, Bryant said, noting the toll of the isolation. “It’s a space where everyone struggles for connectivity – and I don’t mean broadband,” he said.

The in-person learning experience is aligned to the district’s core mission. The mission of Henderson County Public Schools is “to provide all students the opportunity to learn and the encouragement to succeed in a safe environment.”

“It’s about serving and supporting each other,” said Bryant. “Kids are our currency as educators. It’s the relationship, the social experience of being in the classroom and the school.”

Re-imagining school in the face of adversity

Another blessing for Bryant is the pandemic has created space for him and his team to wildly imagine there are no barriers and there are no rules.

Words like “isn’t” and “wouldn’t” and “couldn’t” and “can’t” are not in the district’s vocabulary. “The deficit mindset didn’t serve us,” said Bryant.

Instead, he is talking about the power of the “wide open space” created by the pandemic for strategic conversations.

“Draft recklessly, act sensibly,” Bryant urges his team.

Together, they are working backwards from imagining all that school can be into what that looks like for each principal and each school, each classroom and each teacher, and every single student. It worked in summer school.

The handcuffs are off, and Bryant is fired up and determined.

“We are going to invest and fertilize and grow this year,” he said.

“We are teaching the children more by what we say and do than any content we deliver. We are teaching them to work through adversity even during this crisis of humanity.”

Superintendent John Bryant

About Henderson County Public Schools

Henderson County is about 20 miles south of Asheville.

Henderson County is located in the mountains of western North Carolina.

The district includes 13 elementary, 4 middle, 4 high schools, an education center, and an early college high school. In 2020-21, the district served 12,919 students.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.