Henry County school chief: An unthinkable crisis. An undaunted community

Superintendent says pandemic showed dedication and determination of staff, students, community

With classes resuming next week in Henry County, Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis talks about what she learned about her staff, schools and community during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Mary Elizabeth Davis

No one would have been surprised if last school year had gone horribly wrong. Some would argue that it did. Teachers had to teach from their kitchen tables. Students had to spend more time on computers and digital devices. Routines were thrown into chaos. Providing essential services required agility like never before. Students, staff, extended communities got sick. Mitigation became one of the most prominent words in our daily communications. It was tough. So much was unknown including just how important schools would play into the role of spreading or mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Credit: ROD CHRISTOPHER

Credit: ROD CHRISTOPHER

Others would argue the opposite. We found a way to deliver education – no, reinvent education in ways that no college course or student teaching experience could ever prepare an educator. Students received instruction. Education professionals proved their care and compassion for their children in ways that will be remembered by these young people well into the latter stages of their life.

That’s the impression educators feel they are called to make when joining the profession. Students got the chance to grow, expand their adaptability capabilities to the unknown, and reach their goals through perseverance and hard work. That’s what life is all about. They were successful even despite all of the unknowns that once seemed so daunting.

We learned, and I most definitely learned that the key to making it through last year to arrive on the cusp of another school year could be found in a few simple lessons seen in the spirit of young people, the passion of a community, and the desire for everyone to be successful.

I would put my disappointment in the disruption to education for our students and staff caused by this global pandemic up against anyone. Especially in Henry County Schools where we had just witnessed the largest growth on state accountability measures of any metro district and were poised to keep the momentum going through the launch of a five-year community-inspired strategic plan.

Then COVID hit, and we knew that its effect, like in all areas of the country, would stunt this growth to varying degrees. Our education professionals knew all that was at stake and, without fail or hesitation, each member of our professional staff across the district went to work to ensure our students would have a great educational experience.

WiFi was secured for families without. Packets were printed for families needing paper resources. Meal service was designed to serve on or off-campus. Cares Teams were created to ensure that students had multiple connections to caring adults. This extensive effort was reciprocated by students. They studied harder, engaged more, and reached their goals in the end. And those who may have fallen a little short, well they, along with their teachers, put in the extra work to close any gaps and secure key knowledge which will help them successfully navigate to the next school year.

And our seniors? Well, they showed that the better part of a year and a half of pandemic learning could not keep them from graduating with a diploma that most definitely will be treasured for all time. They earned it.

Simultaneous to our students showing their resiliency, there was an impassioned community of families, businesses, faith-based organizations, and non-profits recognizing that our future is found in the hopes and dreams of our young people, and that we collectively must not let those hopes and dreams be derailed due to this once-in-a-lifetime event. Without fail or hesitation, our schools and district office were flooded with calls of support and questions of “can we do more” to help our schools during this time.

These calls came at a time when many people were looking inward at how they would survive themselves, but the students mattered most. Town hall events, school supplies, food support, instructional materials, and other donations were abundant, and our thanks for it all could never surpass the generosity because it was just that immense.

And through it all, I saw a coalescing around the true hope that everyone would come through this unthinkable situation stronger in the end. When people are pulling for one another, it becomes extremely difficult for anything to pull your community apart. An education system is only as successful as the community that supports it, and a community is successful when it places a high value on its education. In our community, I can confidently say this is the case. From our medical professionals to our government leaders, from our business community to our faith-based organizations.

Every group stacked hands to support its education system, and in the end, the resiliency of this community is what will ensure the success of its young people and the future overall. When we all look back on this challenging time in our history and books are written recounting the actions of the world, the passion of our community for our young people will stand out above everything else.

Now here we are in July of 2021, while not perfect, far ahead of where we were just one year ago. After a year of first-time experiences, we now have a trusted and reliable response model for a consistent, quick reaction to any need that arises in our school community relating to COVID-19 cases. We will continue to grow and evolve this response to make sure we can continue to provide learning at the highest levels with the fewest interruptions and despite the disruptions.

We know that learning is best experienced in a classroom, and despite the previous belief that schools had the potential to be places where COVID-19 would cause mass-spreading of the virus, we have found that in Henry County Schools this is not the case. That is why we are eager to get our doors back open this fall.

Our school buildings and in-person instruction provide stability for our students’ schedules, for their daily structure, and for the crucial balance of digital screen time. We are ready to help our students and our school communities to return to normal while providing a place of belonging with love and care from the best professionals in education.

We can’t wait to greet our families on Wednesday. We are back and we are ready.

The author of this guest column is Dr. Mary Elizabeth Davis, superintendent of Henry County Schools.