COVID-19 one year later: Virus presents challenges for schools, students

Published 7:00 am Saturday, March 27, 2021

By Hunter Cloud

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Last year, Natchez-Adams School District never made it back to school after spring break as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt.

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Public Relations Coordinator Tony Fields said the school district came up with a way to finish out the school year before meeting over the summer to come up with a plan for the 2020 to 2021 school year.

The plan included a hybrid and virtual model for classes, he said. While the district did not do everything perfectly, officials tried to put the students first, he said. 

“There was no playbook for this,” Fields said. “We really had to work hard to make sure we gave the best opportunity for educating our students in spite of the challenges.”

Technology presented a challenge to the district because some students did not have access to Wi-Fi or devices to complete assignments, he said.

State education officials, the superintendent and the school board worked hard to provide students with a device and a hot spot for those without internet, he said.

NASD supplied each student with a Chromebook to use at home and at school.

Adams County Christian School Headmaster David King said the past decade has shown a change in technology which has transformed the classroom. 

Having the means to provide students with technology was crucial as interruptions to the school year were mitigated by technology.

The same technology was helpful to the school when unexpected weather events also interrupted normal school days, King said.

“Every child in our school had a device. The pandemic was a portion of it but we also had terrible weather,” he said, adding the school committed to each child having a device of their own so students and teachers could remain connected with each other during those interruptions.

“It proved to be a good move on our part.”

King said ACCS administrator Cricket Daugherty was responsible for planning a virtual and hybrid model for the school. Daugherty said because they were able to shrink class sizes from about 25 to 20 students and spread the kids out, they were able to keep face-to-face classes.

By following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, ACCS was able to keep their students safe, she said. Any students who tested positive were sent home for the required amount of time and given virtual or take-home assignments until they were able to come back to school, she said.

“The integration of Chromebooks was our biggest accomplishment,” Daugherty said. “The pandemic forced us into (using technology) that before we would have moved into slowly. I think we were excited to make that big leap with technology.”

Having face-to-face classes was important for King and ACCS because there is no substitute for in person instruction, he said.

A learning gap resulted from the limited in person instruction at Natchez-Adams County schools, Fields said.

This gap has been shown by comparing the results of student assessments taken at the beginning and middle of the school year to previous year’s assessments, he said.

Once the school district gets results from end of the year assessments, officials will be able to compare the data to previous years to fully understand the impacts of virtual education during the pandemic, Fields said.

While the school district knows there has been learning loss through gaps in instruction, the question remains on how to address learning loss, he said.

“(We’re planning) how we are going to address accelerated learning for students who missed out on a lot,” Fields said. “We have done a good job with instruction but it is nothing like being in front of a teacher in a classroom.”

Classroom teachers provide the best data for the amount of learning loss, he said. Their feedback is more valuable than ever because teachers are the ones who spend the most time with the students, he said.

On Friday, school officials, parents and community members were looking at the school calendar for next school year to discuss a different calendar that addresses student needs, Fields said.

He said there might be an early start to the year and also some intercession periods for students whose data shows they have fallen behind.

Fields said he hopes to have everyone in the school building for next school year.

Face-to-face classes are dependent on the number of COVID infections, what infection and vaccinate rate is in Adams County and what the CDC says.

Over the past school year, Fields said the biggest regret has been kids not being able to interact with each other. He said Natchez-Adams County School District has social workers and counselors who are planning to deal with emotional stress the students have gone through.

“I know for me as an adult, I have struggled with not being social and not being around people,” Fields said. “Imagine being a kid and not being able to interact with your peers. There are going to be some emotional challenges we are going to have to address with our students.”

Teachers in the school district did everything they could do for their kids, Fields said, adding he is grateful for their efforts. Throughout the school year, the district has also worked to provide hot meals for students everyday, he said.

It has not been an easy school year but teamwork between the teachers, parents and the community has made the school year easier, he said.

“We have shown how resilient we really are and what we can accomplish if we work together,” Fields said.

“We do not always have to agree but when all is said and done we can work together.”

Editor’s note: Officials at Cathedral School and St. Mary Basilica did not respond to repeated messages seeking comments on how that school handled student learning through the  COVID pandemic.