By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
At the largest elementary school in Hoke County, teachers and staff worked for hours Monday to prepare over 750 laptop bags packed with iPads and Chromebooks for families to pick up for their children.
A parent walked up to the locked front door of Rockfish Hoke Elementary, only for Principal Shawn O’Connor to guide her around the sidet of the building. Staff members wearing gloves handed clipboards of paperwork through the open windows of the school gym.
“Where the green sign is down there,” O’Connor pointed out.
“Oh, y’all ain’t playing games,” the parent said, as she walked to a window to pick up a Chromebook for a third grade student.
“No we’re not, we’re not,” the principal told her.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order Friday closing all public schools across the state through the end of March in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Hoke school administrators, teachers and staff spent the weekend getting ready to help students transition to learning at home.
Superintendent Dr. Freddie Williamson called an emergency meeting Sunday. They had to figure out how to continue educating almost 9,000 students, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, with empty school buildings. They also had to work out a plan to make sure those children wouldn’t go hungry, in a county where the majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
Less than 24 hours later, they put those plans into action.
Each child attending Hoke County Schools has access to a school-provided iPad or Chromebook for their lessons, thanks to the “one-to-one” initiative launched in 2016 that saw the county purchase enough of the devices to have one for every student. Usually only high school students are allowed to take the devices home, but given the circumstances, the county’s elementary and middle schools rushed to prepare the laptop bags for younger students to take their devices as well.
Williamson said he was thankful for the county’s decision several years ago to fund the one-to-one initiative.
“I want to say to the public, they’re seeing evidence and will continue to see evidence of how tax dollars are spent. We’re able to do online learning because of our one-to-one,” he said. “That only happened because county commissioners funded that for us, which didn’t happen in every (local education agency). Think where we would be if that had not happened, we would not be able to provide instruction.”
It took the mobilization of all of the schools’ team members pulling a 13-hour mandatory teacher workday Monday to get the devices handed out, turn over any student belongings left in the buildings and answer tech support questions. Rockfish Hoke Elementary’s building design allowed teachers and staff to stay inside and hand families and children their belongings and laptops through the windows, to cut down on any risk of spreading germs.
“We’ve had everybody from every position in the school helping out today. It’s been amazing,” O’Connor said.
Hoke County Schools will use digital resources like Google Classroom, Apex Learning, Classwork, and Seesaw – all tools students and teachers already use and are familiar with – during the coronavirus closure.
“Each teacher has a learning management system that they’ll utilize to post assignments, communicate with the parents and the families, follow up on work, so that we can keep learning going as much as possible,” Assistant Superintendent Dr. Debra Dowless said.
Teachers will also hold virtual office hours at set times, so students can use online conferencing to ask questions.
Not all children may have access to internet service at home. To help them, the schools were purchasing wifi hotspots, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Shannon Register said.
“We have purchased some smart spots, which is a hot spot device, and then on a case by case basis, when we contact looking at our homeless students, our most vulnerable ones, we will have a smart spot available,” she said.
Additionally, the internet provider Charter announced that starting this week, it would offer temporary free internet for families of a child in K-12 education. Some Hoke school staff members investigated and found the process to be simple, Register said. To sign up for the free installation, call Charter at 1-844-488-8395
“We had a few of our employees to say they have actually called the number because they wanted to know how simple or complex it would be for parents, and they said it was a simple process,” Register said.
There is also work that can be done on the computer while offline, Dowless said.
Taja Flagg, parent of a second grader at Rockfish Hoke Elementary, said she felt the precautions were necessary. Flagg was one of the hundreds of parents who trickled in to the school Monday to pick up her child’s Chromebook.
“I think it’s necessary, just because I think whatever needs to be done to try and at least keep it contained, especially in the schools,” she said. “I’ve got other kids at home, and if that keeps one of my kids from getting sick and potentially getting us all sick, I think that’s a good thing.”
She was ready to help her daughter learn remotely, Flagg said.
“I think they’re going to do the best they can to keep it as normal as possible, but I’m prepared to help my daughter as much as I can. I take a lot of my classes online too, I’m in college as well so now all of my stuff is online,” she said.
Food delivery on school buses
The schools’ child nutrition program additionally planned to launch meal deliveries to school bus stops across the county to keep children fed during the state-mandated closure. Bus drivers started Tuesday driving routes to deliver food to elementary school bus stops throughout Hoke, with teachers and staff members volunteering to help hand out the packaged meals at the stops.
The food is prepared by Hoke child nutrition in the school kitchens, and is paid for through the United States Department of Agriculture’s summer feeding program. The school system shifted to use the feeding program instead of its usual program – the National School Lunch Program – because with the usual system, children have to physically go through the lunch line and be seen, Hoke County Schools Child Nutrition Director Deborah Carpenter said.
“We’re moved to the summer nutrition program. That program is a little bit different in ways we can handle this situation,” she said.
With the feeding program, any child in Hoke County up to age 18 can receive a meal at no cost to their family. That way the schools are able to deliver meals to the bus stops for any child, including children who aren’t enrolled in Hoke County Schools.
“Hoke County Schools will provide for our children in any way that we can. We are ready to endure the task and do whatever we have to do to provide not only that learning but meals, so they can continue to learn and continue to grow and continue to function even at home, because we know there are food-insecure homes in Hoke County,” Carpenter said.
The school system has addresses for all children enrolled, so even children who walk or are dropped off by parents can be included in the delivery counts. The meals include breakfast and lunch packaged together with milk, kept in temperature-controlled coolers as they are distributed. If buses run out of food before finishing the route, they can return to pick up more meals.
The meals will be provided from March 17-27. Families who aren’t sure where the nearest delivery bus stop is from their home should contact their child’s school for that information, Assistant Superintendent Roger Williams said.
Staff asked for patience as the schools work out any obstacles in the first few days of operation.
With the situation constantly changing, there are a lot of questions Hoke school officials aren’t able to answer right now. Will the governor extend the two-week closure, keeping schools shut down for longer? What will happen with regards to mandated testing, make-up days and the school calendar, even high school graduation ceremonies?
All they can do for the moment is wait on further guidance from the governor’s office and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, school officials said.
They do know that all school staff will continue being paid as usual. In most cases they’ll still be working – on an altered schedule, for some, and remotely for teachers.
The school system is providing updates on its website at http://hcs.k12.nc.us.