[Contributed Photo: A volunteer with Raeford First Baptist Church delivers meals to a Hoke County child.]
By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Hoke County Schools will remain online-only for at least several more weeks due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, but officials hope to potentially return to a hybrid in-person and remote learning plan in late February.
The school system announced last week it is delaying the start of in-person instruction for pre-kindergarten through high school students to February 22. When schools do reopen, they will return to the same Plan B schedule from the fall semester. Students will attend in-person classes two days a week, and online instruction three days a week. Families who prefer not to send their children back to school in person will have the option of keeping their kids at home for remote learning only.
School administrators said they made the decision based on Hoke’s current COVID-19 data, and for the health and safety of students and staff.
At the end of the fall semester, the school system had hoped to potentially reopen elementary schools only under a more normal Plan A schedule with four days a week of in-person instruction, as allowed by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. However, after further review of the county’s COVID-19 metrics, consultation with the Hoke Health Department and elevated concerns over social distancing, administrators nixed the possibility for returning under Plan A at this time.
“We recognize that this has been a very difficult school year for everyone as we continue to live and operate in a global pandemic. We appreciate your understanding and patience as we continue to prioritize the safety and well-being of our students, staff, and families,” the school system said in the announcement last week.
Food for kids
The schools will continue offering no-cost drive-thru meals for all students, at all Hoke public schools, through at least the first week of February. Families, including relatives such as grandparents or aunts or uncles, and even neighbors can drive through to pick up packaged meals for schoolchildren. SandHoke Early College students can receive their meals at Hoke High School’s drive thru line.
The drive-thru meals are being offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30-5:30 p.m.
Hoke County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Dowless said she hoped the hours would allow parents who don’t leave work until 5 p.m. to be more flexible in being able to get meals for their children.
Child Nutrition Director Deborah Carpenter said it doesn’t matter which school families go to, to pick up the meals.
“It can be any of the schools, even if they have multiple children they can pick the meals up from one school,” she said.
The department is also partnering with local churches to help send out meals for families who don’t have access to transportation, in efforts to reach more of the district’s nearly 9,000 enrolled students.
“It has just been awesome. We have 26 outreach faith-based groups that are delivering meals for us to children,” Carpenter.
“They are really helping us out a lot.”
Pandemic EBT eligible
Hoke County families should be eligible for any future rounds of Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, this spring, school officials said.
All families in Hoke with a child enrolled in Hoke County Schools were eligible last summer to receive a P-EBT card, without having to apply for it, to help feed their children. However, those same families missed out last fall when the school system didn’t meet one of the requirements for another round of the benefits.
Federal leaders set the requirements, including one stipulation that schools had to be closed and provide online-only education for all students for a period of time at the start of the school year in August. Hoke County Schools started back on the hybrid Plan B schedule, which led to families not being eligible for the benefits last autumn.
Things should be different in 2021, as the school system started the year in remote learning only. While details about future P-EBT distributions were not yet available, families with children in Hoke County Schools ought to qualify now based on the current requirements, school officials confirmed.
Learning at home
Transitioning from in-person learning to at-home learning hasn’t been easy for many students, or for many teachers, but school officials say things have improved.
Dr. Dawn Ramseur, executive director of digital teaching and learning, spoke to the efforts to help bridge the gap.
“There have definitely been some growing pains. We sort of jumped in with both feet and maybe the water went over a couple people’s heads, but we’re all floating now at least with our head above water. We continue to learn more skills with respect to that, because every Friday we are doing training with teachers,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with what teachers are asking for, but also what we’re seeing that they need as a result of visiting their Canvas pages and their Seesaw accounts to see where we need to give additional support.”
The schools are focusing on helping teachers design lessons to better engage with students who are learning at home.
“We really want it to be engaging and have kids interact with the work, so we’re working very diligently on teaching teachers how to do that in their classrooms,” Ramseur said.
The school system has also recently replaced the older Chromebooks and iPads with new ones, purchased through funding provided specifically for the purpose by the Hoke County Board of Commissioners. The device refresh was planned since before the pandemic, but with students using their devices at home daily, it took on new importance.
Student attendance and achievement have been concerns as well, as the pandemic continues into 2021 and students and teachers continue facing many challenges.
“With this new school year and these unprecedented times, two of our focus points have been looking at grades, and looking at attendance,” Dr. Shannon Register, assistant superintendent for curriculum, said.
When looking at the first quarter of the school year to the second quarter, the school system saw improvements in student attendance and assignment completion.
“Ultimately what we have been stressing is it’s really about competency-based mastery, making sure that students master the concepts that we’re teaching, versus we’re trying to cover a lot of content. That has made a difference when we are looking at our grades,” Register said.
Dowless said each school has problem-solving teams that are working to improve things for students.
“How can we make this better, what might be a barrier, how can we offset so that we can make sure that this student can complete assignments and submit them? I think the work that the schools have been doing around that in supporting students has been critical to our students being able to be more successful,” the superintendent said.