Teaching the new normal: CCS enters an unprecedented semester

by Aug 20, 2020Front Page, NEWS ka-no-he-da





Even in a pandemic, Sonya Edwards will be talking to her students every day. Even if that means answering a text from a student at 10:30 p.m. 

Edwards, a Creative Learning Center teacher at Cherokee Central Schools (CCS), is among thousands of teachers who are having to adapt to world of remote learning due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, the CCS Board of Education voted unanimously to begin the school year in Plan C, remote learning only. This is a decision that Edwards fully supports. 

“I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I cried. But, I knew it was the right thing for our school and our community. Because this was the thing – as far as our School Board choosing Plan C, and it was a unanimous decision, that let us know that the number one thing that they were concerned about was our safety.”

The most difficult aspect moving forward is communication, explained Edwards. 

“Normally when I’m in a classroom, I can see when my students are not getting the information by the expressions on their face when I introduce this concept. I don’t have that ability. We’ll be doing live Google Meets, but that’s only with the students that do have the internet and technology. So, when my students open up that flash drive and they see that assignment, I won’t be there. That’s the other big challenge.”

Greg McGaha, chair of the Social Studies Department, said that this shift has changed how they schedule their time. 

“It’s a lot of front-loaded work. It is a ton of front-loaded work,” said McGaha. 

“In traditional, typical instruction when they’re all here, it’s conceivable that you could have a veteran teacher coming in in the early morning and know exactly where they are on the unit and they’ve already got their stuff laid out. And you’ve already got it from previous years. With this, you’re having to front-load all of the work. I mean, right now I’m trying to make sure that I have at least five units for all of my classes complete.”

McGaha says that this puts a lot of pressure on kids to schedule their own time appropriately. While he expressed concerned that it may be more difficult for a lot of students, he has been encouraged by the attitudes of others. 

“There are a lot of negative aspects to having to do this. I think all educators, the entire district, we’re ready to get back to a level of normalcy. But the bright side of this is that is an opportunity for students to really accept accountability and personal responsibility. And if they can be successful through all of this, it’s really going to prepare them for the workforce, certainly for going into college. I spoke with a student just today, and he made the comment, ‘I can’t help but feel like this is in some ways what college is like. It’s more personal responsibility.’ And I said that’s exactly what college is like. In fact, most people that flunk out of college, it’s not necessarily that they can’t do the work. It’s because when they go back to the dorms no one’s making them do the work.”

These barriers for communication are even more true in western North Carolina, where service and internet access are not a given. Many homes have no internet access, and this is something the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been working to alleviate. 

On Aug. 18, Tribal IT announced that Wi-Fi access would be extended to many of the community clubs across the Boundary. 

Director of Tribal IT Bill Travitz sent out the following message to Tribal employees: “The Office of Information Technology and Cherokee Broadband are pleased to announce the availability of public Wi-Fi at the various Community Centers and Gymnasiums around the Qualla Boundary, Snowbird and Cherokee County.  These have been provided to allow parents and students a place to go to access high speed internet should they not have availability at home. As of 8/14/20, all but two locations have been completed.   The remaining two locations, Big Cove Community Center and the Soco Gym at Rough Branch are expected to be completed this week or by early next week.” 

Edwards acknowledged that internet access is spotty at best in the region, and she said that she has several students that are needing to use a jump drive due to a lack of Wi-Fi in their homes. She did say that she is very excited for the advancements that offer wireless access at Community Centers, but that it is still an immense struggle for those families that don’t have 24/7 availability. 

A major asset that CCS holds is that the school has been transitioning to a ‘blended learning’ model over the past few years. The idea was to implement more technology and training in each of the schools for both students and teachers. This initiative has offered more preparedness for remote learning options. 

“I’m so glad I have a tool kit. That I have resources available. And I have an amazing staff and administration that we can work with. Because with this, you’ve got to say ‘I don’t know how to do this. I do need some help’,” said Edwards

McGaha says that it will be a challenge this semester. That moving forward it will be important to be able to adapt as people grow into their new roles. 

“I think it’s going to be a lot of trial and error. What works in my classes and with my content of Social Studies may or may not work for someone teaching English or Math. I think it’s going to be a tremendous amount of trial and error figuring out what works for you as a teacher. Also, what works for your students. Arguably with this situation more-so than ever in education, we’ve got to really take into account the entire family unit.”

That idea is something that Edwards expressed as well. Teachers are often role models and offer tremendous support for their students. However, communication will be a lot more intimate between families and teachers. 

“We’re coming into their homes. And I think that’s something, as teachers, we have to pay attention to is we’re actually in their space with this virtual learning. And so, we really need to be none-judgmental, we need to be really focused on the learning of the student and the well-being of the family.”

When the Board of Education chose to move to Plan C, they did so with opportunity to reassess the situation as the semester progresses. Currently, CCS looks to address the issue in October. Depending on how the situation with the pandemic has progressed, there is a chance that students could be back on campus at that point. 

Edwards says that as much as she wants to be back with her students, the last thing she wants to do is to put people in danger. She says that it is important that if there is anything a student needs, don’t wait to ask. 

“We’re here. We’re available to our students. We want to support our students and their families. If families have an issue, reach out to the school. Communication is going to be pivotal over these next nine weeks. I just want to really reassure the community that we’re trying to do the best that we can under these circumstances.”