Three Lessons Learned from COVID-19
A countywide school district engaged its community and strategized with multiple groups to ensure its schools could safely reopen.
By Cody Patterson
Hamilton County Schools (HCS) in Chattanooga, the fourth largest district in Tennessee, was one of thousands of public school districts left grappling with how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. To maintain the continuity of learning, the district launched a School Reopening Task Force and worked furiously alongside teachers, parents, students, and community members to outline a learning plan for the 2020-21 school year. The plan offered a safe learning environment and robust instruction whether students were learning at home or in person. It included mitigation strategies, strict contact tracing protocols, and HCS at Home, a remote learning option that kept students connected to their school and teacher. The district also launched HCS EdConnect, an innovative initiative bridging the digital divide and providing high-speed internet at no cost to disadvantaged families for at least the next decade.
Through this collaborative effort and the support of staff, students, families and the community, HCS became the first large district in the state of Tennessee to successfully open schools for in-person learning on schedule. Flash forward to today, the district ended the 2020-21 year with 90% of the school year completed in-person during a global pandemic.
As we look ahead to the future, there are three strategies HCS intends to keep from the COVID-19 era: strengthened partnerships with families, technology for collaboration, and accelerated work on the Whole Child/Whole Teacher.
Strengthened partnerships with families
Engaged Community is not only a focus area within our strategic plan but also a critical component of our ability to maintain in-person instruction. When schools closed last spring, we immediately got to work increasing the touchpoints with HCS families through a variety of channels such as daily email updates, 24/7 information hotlines, surveys for feedback, and social media. We also introduced live streaming options for board meetings, graduations, etc.
More importantly, we were intentional in using virtual meeting tools like Zoom to introduce regular community town hall meetings, medical Q&A sessions, presentations on our Continuous Learning Plan, and more.
The collective purpose of our community’s effort to serve children during a global pandemic led to the creation of HCS EdConnect, a program designed to provide high-speed internet at no cost to nearly 30,000 economically disadvantaged families across Hamilton County for the next decade. This program was made possible through a partnership with EPB, our municipal electricity and internet provider, and others in the community. HCS EdConnect not only began solving for the immediate needs of internet access for fully remote learning, but also for the long-term goal of closing the digital divide that exists across our community.
With sustained community engagement in all of these mediums throughout the pandemic, we’ve learned families enjoy the convenience of virtual meetings and it optimizes our ability to target these meetings for relevant stakeholders compared to conducting mass communication campaigns. Between March 2020-March 2021, we had over 800 communication touchpoints with our community of stakeholders. There’s no way we could have done the work of educating children without a collective sense of purpose and action.
As we look ahead to next school year, we hope to continue strengthening partnerships with families through regular virtual community town halls focused on district priorities and potentially for school-based conferencing needs (e.g., parent-teacher meetings, IEPs). We are also interested in cultivating a strategic survey calendar to maximize sustained engagement we experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Technology for collaboration
Embracing virtual tools to more efficiently support teachers during collaborative planning and professional development helped sustain active learning communities. This encouraged and modeled technology integration while emphasizing instructional delivery. Additionally, the blended learning approach allowed our students to leverage technology and work collaboratively whether in-person or at home. These skills align with the district’s Future Ready Focus and will help ensure student success as they encounter new challenges and learning opportunities.
The district utilized multiple platforms and digital tools to support a standards-based approach to student learning. Digital resources and tools include the recently enhanced and updated Discovery Education platform, Canvas, Kami, online simulations, and digital texts, as well as Chromebooks for all secondary students (appx. 24,000 students). Although integrating more technology into students’ learning and curriculum planning was a continued area of focus for our district, the pandemic accelerated the need to ensure virtual tools were optimized to benefit students as well as teachers.
In the upcoming school year, we aim to continue leveraging technology for enhanced collaboration in the curriculum planning process, professional development focused on innovative educational technologies, and digital tools to support a standards-based approach to student learning.
Accelerated work on the Whole Child/Whole Teacher
Attending to mental wellness needs is important for educators and students. Through the Wellness Wednesday initiative and intentional social emotional learning implementation, Hamilton County educators and students learned helpful skills to navigate the 2020-2021 school year. Wellness Wednesday included a series of emotional regulation and resilience techniques that served as a framework for elevating self-care throughout the district. Hamilton County educators were encouraged to join Zoom sessions each Wednesday to participate in Mindfulness strategies, cooking, reading, and arts as well as other creative opportunities that promoted personal balance and self-care. We also highlighted teachers in our Teacher Feature, which promoted educators that were practicing personal well-being.
Establishing healthy, social, emotional learning opportunities for students was also a priority. Social emotional supports were increased by adding additional mental health personnel, implementing a K-12 SEL curriculum, and administering a SEL screener. Counselors conducted virtual SEL and mental health awareness lessons for students and families. With the varying complexities of school and home, students were encouraged to practice learned SEL strategies to self-regulate and exercise resilience.
Looking to the future, these practices and resources will continue to be a part of Hamilton County’s SEL program. Practices implemented this school year have allowed us to dive deeper into promoting students’ academic success by developing and coordinating supports that target barriers to achievement. The ultimate goal of this work is to provide personalized and comprehensive supports for every student through Integrated Student Supports. Supports that will equitably address academic, social, emotional, and behavioral achievement for all children.
The lessons learned during the COVID-19 era will not only assist us as we return to some level of normal in the upcoming school year but also support our just cause for years to come; To see all children thrive and experience a future without limits.
Cody Patterson is the Communications Officer at the Hamilton County Schools in Tennessee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or its board of directors.