MADISON, Ala. (WAFF) - A long semester is now over, marking the halfway point in what Madison City Schools Superintendent Dr. Ed Nichols calls the hardest year ever for all educators.
“What people don’t realize is, every facet of the school district had to alter, bus driving, food nutrition, maintenance staff, as well as teachers,” Nichols said. “I mean, everything was different and I will say that all our folks are tired. They’re tired and they’re ready for a break.”
The Winter break was much needed for everyone this year, a few weeks off for parents, students, teachers, staff and administrators to take a deep breath and relax for a little while.
Nichols said the break is also a time to look back on what they’ve learned and make changes for the second semester.
He said the most difficult part of the semester has been dealing with the constant changes. Nichols described their situation as a bouncy ball in a air tank, constantly moving around and changing direction.
Throughout the school year, Nichols said one of his top priorities has been keeping as many students in the classroom as possible. He said they’ve noticed their students who are in in-person learning are doing better than students in virtual learning.
At the same time, he said this is a balancing act and one of the best skills they’ve learned this school year is how to look at the COVID-19 case numbers in the community and in school and decide which learning format would be best.
“As we’ve progressed through this semester, we have become more astute at the testing numbers, the positivity numbers, how they relate in the county, and of course we’ve been watching our own numbers,” Nichols said. “Now we kind of can correlate what effect different ways of offerings, face to face or hybrid, can have on what we do in schools.”
Nichols said right before Thanksgiving they almost had to move students to entirely virtual learning, they had nearly 900 in quarantine and almost 60 positives system wide. But, coming out of Thanksgiving break, Madison City Schools went to a hybrid schedule and saw their numbers decline for the first time all semester.
“While this hybrid is not what we want, it has helped us from going completely virtual,” Nichols said.
Nichols said everyone would love to have every student back in the classroom, but that is a huge risk with how much COVID-19 is spreading in the community.
“In my opinion, the worst thing we could do is try and go back completely, then have to shut down and be virtual for a couple of weeks,” Nichols said.
Nichols said he knows keeping kids out of school can be difficult for some parents and he wants families to understand they do not take those decisions lightly.
“I want our parents to know this is not something that we just decide,” Nichols said. “We are really looking at staffing numbers, how we can continue to have the staff we need to run a school and then how many people are going to be quarantined.”
Nichols said the break is also giving them a chance to look back on what worked and what didn’t work during the first semester.
One big change for virtual students will be a less free flowing school day.
“Our virtual students will have blocks of learning time that they will log in, that will be less self paced, more synchronized learning with their teachers,” Nichols said.
He said they’ve noticed more of their virtual students falling behind than those who took the in-person route. Nichols said this change will help students learn better in two ways.
“First of all, there is an accountability factor that teachers will be there to support them in those blocks just as they were in the regular,” Nichols said. “But it also allows us for some after school time for anyone who is struggling.”
For those students who have fallen behind, they’re working on ways to help those students catch back up.
“I think there is a standard expectation that we have, but, at the same time, how do we come back and remediate and how do we come back and allow students to retake courses?” Nichols said. “That is something we’re discussing now and what tutoring opportunities we can offer.”
Nichols said, like everyone else, he is looking forward to when vaccines are widely available and this can all come to an end.
“It’s going to take months, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We can get back to having schools and not feeling like we’re a bouncing ball in an air tank just bouncing around from day to day.”
Madison City Schools will start the second semester on Tuesday, Jan. 5. Nichols said they’ll come back in a hybrid schedule for at least the first week of the semester, they’ll determine what the second week will look like based on the numbers of quarantines and positive COVID-19 cases both in the system and in the community.