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School environment evolves due to pandemic

By Jeri Borst

When schools closed in March due to concerns of a COVID-19 pandemic, much was out of the control of local school districts. Mandated by the state to close schools to the public and only allow essential personnel in, teachers, students and parents were tasked with shifting the learning environment overnight.

Leaders at Mena Public School District and Ouachita River School District said the learning curve to facilitate education for the 2020-2021 school year has been boldly met by each districts dedicated teams who are striving to provide quality education in the safest manner possible.

Mena school superintendent Benny Weston said the process has been like no other he has seen in his years of education.

“We had a task ahead of us, and it was arduous,” he said. “We brought in the state facilities inspector and set out to sanitize and clean above and beyond so that we were ready to return.”

Ouachita school superintendent Jerry Strasner shared similar sentiments.

“We’ve worked together better than ever,” Strasner said. “Not just our staff but schools in general. are coming together to overcome these challenges and we are all better for it.”

“The essential personnel have done a tremendous job and worked tirelessly to meet the state mandates that have been handed down to us,” Weston said.

Mena assistant superintendent Lee Smith said every member of the staff has embraced the responsibility necessary to keep campuses as sanitized as possible.

“Everyone is a custodian and has been trained in the sanitation process,” Smith said.

In addition to traditional communication methods such as calling, sending letters and distributing news updates, both school districts are utilizing digital tools to communicate with parents through videos explaining new procedures and social media to keep the community informed of changing directives.

“Our learning plan is a living document, it changes as the situation changes,” Weston said.

Both superintendents are sensitive to the stress, worry and discomfort felt by students, parents and staff and hope communicating in a timely, transparent manner eases sensibilities.

“Through this process we have been able to contact the vast majority of our students’ parents,” Strasner said. “During the shut down when we delivered meals, we had the opportunity to be more involved than ever before. In a way, this has brought us closer to the families and I feel we are a closer district because of it.”

Strasner said the transition to offer a digital learning option has forced the district to pursue the use of tools not fully utilized before.

“This has really been an opportunity to grow and our team has really embraced it and I couldn’t be prouder of our teachers who are learning new ways to teach and taking on more than they ever have.”

Both districts will be utilizing a digital learning management software that will offer the core education requirements to both traditional in school students and those using a virtual or blended option at home.

Weston stressed it is imperative students and families realize that completing learning objectives will be just as stringent for students learning at home as it is for students on campus.

For blended or virtual students in rural areas who do not have access to high speed internet, he said the burden would be incumbent upon parents to insure students are able to meet their educational responsibilities.

“There will be a rigor to the core components and  students and parents will be held accountable for meeting the learning responsibilities, while the school will be held accountable at the state level,” Lee said, noting a smart data dashboard program was purchased to monitor students progress.

Strasner said ORSD also has monitoring programs and teachers will be building their own digital content this year while utilizing supplemental learning program.

“We will be able to monitor students digitally, see their time on task, what they are working on,” he said. Both districts have received a 20 percent or better response from parents who said their students will be educated in the classroom.

Though much effort and progress has been made to see this school year begin, both superintendents agreed that teachers face an unusual environment as they look to reassure and encourage students.

Both superintendents noted it will be difficult for teachers to refrain from hugging and assuring students with a pat on the back for a job well done.

Editors Note: Messages left for Cossatot School Superintendent were not returned at press time.

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