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Education news and issues in the Ozarks.

New SPS Superintendent Weighs In On Providing An Education In A Pandemic: Part 1

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Michele Skalicky
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I'm speaking with the new superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, Dr. Grenita Lathan. She comes to Springfield from Houston, Texas, where she served as interim superintendent for the Houston Independent School District. Welcome Dr. Lathan.

Thank you.

The last year has been a challenging one for many people. The COVID-19 pandemic required schools to take steps to keep their students and staff as safe as possible. What did the last school year look like at your district? What worked and what didn't?

Once again, thank you for having me today. What we did initially was to create what we call a communicable disease plan committee. We also created an instructional continuity committee. So two committees, one focused on reopening our district around safety protocols. That was the Communicable Disease Plan Committee. And then one around instruction, academic instruction, vote for both virtual and face to face instruction.  As it relates to keeping students and staff safe, we also said we put together this committee. It was comprised of health officials, parents, community members, school nurses, principals, teachers. And we looked at every aspect of our school district. We looked at extracurricular activities, sports, when students entered onto the bus, their movement throughout the building, we looked at how we would feed students if they were in face to face and we actually came up with protocols. Of course, there was a mask mandate for our state at the time. And so we were following, of course, all of the recommendations from the CDC and our local--and it was our county and city health department in our community. And we created that plan. We presented that plan to the community. And then it was, of course, posted on our website.

We printed up signage as it relates to masking physical distancing. We purchased PPE for all district staff, all district students. And then we also had protocols in place limiting visitors to our buildings. We also worked in collaboration with our city and county health departments to, at that time, COVID test our employees and our students. And then when vaccinations were available, we held vaccination clinics. We trained all of our school nurses to actually administer the vaccinations and worked with our local medical providers to do that. But we continue to meet regularly as a committee and, as additional information was provided by the CDC and our county health department, we made changes, but it was also important at the same time to make sure we were feeding our families. And notice I didn't say students, I said families. And from March 14th, 2020, up until a month ago, we held what we call massive food giveaways where families were able to pick up meals for up to seven days at a time. And so it was important that we did that, and we worked with various food banks and partners across our community to do that.

So were you able to go back to seated classes at all in the fall last year?

We did. The first six weeks of school all of our students and our campus-based staff worked at home and they learned virtually. And then on October 19th, students had the option to return to school face to face or continue in a virtual environment. All of our staff members reported back to work by that date. And so we were fully operational five days a week from October 19th up until the last day of school, which was June 11th.

How familiar are you with the changes the Springfield Public School District made to keep people safe during the pandemic?

So very familiar. They utilized PPE, had food distributions, also followed county guidelines and CDC guidelines.

What is your opinion about the approach the Springfield district took?

Oh, you know...the approach was the right approach for the school district and the community, and that was a question that I was asked actually on the national news. Every community has to do what's best for them. And I will tell you, even in Houston, we were one of the last districts to return to face to face. But when you have a footprint that covers an entire city and you're talking about almost 27,000 employees and almost 200,000 students and their families, you have to look at this. Our staff members live, you know, across the entire city and also in neighboring communities. And so you must do what's best for--based on what your community needs to do. And sometimes people and I want to say this because I know everyone didn't agree with that, but you have to do truly what's best for the greater community.

There's concern that student learning has been impacted because the spring 2020 semester was cut short and then learning looked different last year, partially virtual, partially seated. What will you do as superintendent to make sure any of those learning gaps are identified and addressed?

And our team has actually been working even before my arrival, working on plans to address learning loss. And some of those plans and opportunities that I've been able to sit into and some of those meetings around, of course, tutoring, support, additional extended daytime for some students that need the additional support, but also professional development for staff members to be able to work and develop new strategies for helping students that are behind. And so there will be different opportunities based on the needs of individual campuses and based on the individual academic needs of students or groups of students.