WATAUGA — In response to public school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said school personnel have essentially created a whole new public education system in less than two weeks.
“This pandemic has touched every single area of our operations,” Elliott said. “Staff are stepping up all over our schools and are in new roles or ones that might look very different than they were in three weeks ago.”
North Carolina public schools were initially ordered to close for two weeks starting March 16. Gov. Roy Cooper then announced that schools were to be closed for in-person instruction until May 15.
Elliott said that teachers, staff and administrators reacted to the news of the extended closure by “jumping into action with both feet.” He explained that in a matter of days, school officials reconfigured the entirety of their work to meet the needs of students who are now not able to enter school buildings in person.
“Whether that means developing a system to serve thousands of meals, or how to get a math class from a whiteboard to an online classroom, they’ve done an admirable job making everything work,” Elliott said.
The extended closure also means that there are many events and plans that may not occur this year because of the ongoing pandemic. For this reason, Elliott said he would like to send a message directly to seniors at Watauga High School and the Watauga Innovation Academy.
“While none of us are to blame for our current situation, I feel the need to say that I’m sorry,” Elliott said. “I’m sorry that you are missing out on many of the important events and rituals of your final year of high school — from prom and athletics to field trips and competitions. I am so sorry for our seniors that the memories of their senior year will include many things they had hoped to experience, but I hope looking back that many memories will include silver linings and stories of uncommon heroes and acts of kindness throughout our community.”
Elliott said if students are able to return to school after May 15, school officials would work as quickly as possible to get promotion ceremonies and other events planned for seniors and eighth-graders.
The pandemic has also caused the cancellation of the Watauga Education Foundation’s Shooting Stars 2020 talent showcase. This includes the performing arts auditions and visual arts videotaped interviews that were scheduled for March 28 and the artists’ reception on April 3.
“While this was a difficult decision to make, our nonprofit organization wants to make every effort possible to keep our students, educators, staff and community members as safe and healthy as possible,” WEF stated. “In the face of our individual and community challenges, the Watauga Education Foundation will continue seeking ways of supporting and contributing to the success and wellbeing of the students and teachers of the Watauga County Schools system and our community.”
WEF stated that it would continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and adjust programs and awards accordingly — including the Price-Deverick teacher scholarships and the Kate Swift Reese student scholarship. To stay up to date with WEF, visit wataugaeducationfoundation.org or follow the organization on Twitter at @WEFinWataugaNC.
While school officials try to plan for just about every situation, Elliott said there are just some situations for which one cannot be prepared.
“But we have worked hard to create the culture and conditions required to support our staff through anything that comes our way,” Elliott said. “We are very clear about our mission and what we believe, and we work to empower leadership in every corner of the system and remove barriers to people’s work. We didn’t anticipate disruption on this scale, but we have been able to adapt quickly.”
Simultaneously, the school system is formulating its budget for fiscal year 2020-21. Officials are planning for next school year and all the typical infrastructure and foreseen facility needs. At the same time, Elliott said WCS is making adjustments as needed to this year’s budget to address unanticipated needs. In the coming weeks, Elliott said the school system will spend money it had not previously budgeted for additional instructional supplies and for the technology that makes its new remote learning program possible.
“Currently, our priorities are to keep students engaged academically and to continue feeding as many as possible,” Elliott said. “We are dedicated to keeping as many people employed and receiving benefits as possible.”
Elliott explained that in North Carolina, some school programs — like child nutrition — are self-funded through enterprise activities. This means that those programs have to be financially self-supportive. The school system will receive some partial reimbursement for the meals served at the meal distribution sites, but the child nutrition program will need to be supplemented with other sources to keep people employed and children fed.
While North Carolina schools anticipate some emergency financial assistance from the state, Elliott said he predicted that much of the money will be directed to the poorest counties in the state.
Empty school buildings have given WCS staff the opportunity to paint, clean, disinfect and conduct other improvements that would ordinarily have to wait until summer. Elliott said maintenance staff and custodians are hard at work with repairs, painting and floor work. The closure currently set in place allows staff to refinish gym floors, repair sidewalks, begin updates to heating systems at some schools and tend to other tasks that typically can only be completed when students are not in school.