By JONAH LOSSIAH
ONE FEATHER STAFF
367 days. That will be the time between in-person classes for the children of Cherokee Centrals Schools (CCS). ‘Return to learn’ has seemed like a distant light in an endless tunnel. But that light is getting brighter.
Monday, March 15 will mark the first day back under ‘Plan B,’ a hybrid learning system. This plan will have students split into ‘Maroon’ and ‘Gold’ groups. Each will alternate being in-person at CCS two days a week and will be remote learning the other three.
A year and two days of the unknown, but the school finally has a few more answers.
This is not the first time the CCS administration has attempted to return to in-person learning. The Board of Education had voted on multiple occasions to bring students back, but the Board reversed those decisions before they could materialize.
“It was very frustrating, and it was disappointing,” said Superintendent Michael Murray.
“Because our Board has been extremely supportive about when we were ready to bring our kids back. They wanted our kids back just as badly as our staff. All of us are not only excited about trying to do that. We’ve all tried every measure we could to get them back. It just seemed like every time we got close, that community number was never low enough,” said Murray.
Murray says the focus has been on doing everything possible for their students. However, he says he feels just as much for the teachers that have been combating pandemic learning.
“Every educator I know is hurting. Because they got into this business because they want to do everything they can for our children,” he said.
Lydia Raines, a first-grade teacher at CCS, only started working at the school in February 2020. Raines had taught in the past but had spent the previous 12 years raising her three children and being the owner of local cafe Qualla Java.
Raines only had a few weeks with her students before the pandemic hit, with the last day of school being on March 13, 2020. She has done everything she could to keep her community safe since then. Raines was the first in line at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ mass vaccination event this February, going as far as to teach in that line before getting her shot.
To offer some personal serenity during times of isolation, Raines turned to gardening and baking. However, she says that she will be happy to leave her pounds of bread flour and budding hydrangeas to get even nine weeks with her students.
“Some of the kids I have never met…there are a couple that maybe parents or grandparents came in to pick stuff up, and I don’t even know what the little guys look like,” said Raines.
“I think that parents are looking at me like I’m the bill collector. Because I feel like I’m harassing parents to make sure, ‘this is the day you’ve got to pick up. Do you have this? Do you have that? How is your student doing?’ But I’m doing it over the phone talking to the parents.”
Despite efforts to make internet available to all students at CCS, there is no mandate for online learning. That has meant a constant struggle to maintain communication with her kids.
“Out of 18 students, I have maybe six that are active online. The rest are stay-at-home packets, and that’s been a real struggle getting that work done. I know it’s a lot on the kids. But there is a lot that they need to learn in first grade,” said Raines.
She says that many people don’t understand the challenges presented to young students when it comes to virtual learning. She is trying to teach them to read and do basic mathematics, but there are stretches where that is nearly impossible.
“These kids are 6- or 7-years-old. Yeah, they may play video games, and people say, ‘oh, they know technology’. But really, they don’t. This laptop is completely foreign to them.”
Raines has taken the pandemic very seriously, but she says that she’s desperate to get back in the classroom. Her motivation to teach is at an all-time high, and she knows just how important this last stretch of the school year could be.
“Those first few days, what I think are so important are relationships. For the ones that I haven’t seen, getting to know each other. In order for them to trust me, in order for me to get a valid test from them, I think that’s most important.”
Tara Reed-Cooper, secretary of the CCS Board of Education, has done her best to communicate with teachers and parents. She echoed the concerns brought forth by Raines, and Reed-Cooper says that has been her driving motivation to open the schools as soon as possible.
“They’ve been planning,” said Reed-Cooper. “We’ve asked our teachers to jump through all kinds of hoops to get our kids back into classrooms, and they’ve done it without pushback. They’ve done it without complaining.”
Reed-Cooper says that everyone has been struggling, whether it be teachers, students, parents, or the administration. She says she can’t wait for the kids to be back in school, even if it is just two days a week.
“It’s getting back into the groove of life after being literally shut down for a year. I think it’s the aspect of the parent’s mental health as well as the children’s mental health. Plus, you have to look at the kids that may not be getting what they need at home that they would be getting at school. The staff members have been doing everything that they possibly can to get the kids back into school,” said Reed-Cooper
According to Yona Wade, CCS director of community affairs, by the time school starts, 50 percent of the staff will have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“With the majority of our staff members having chosen to vaccinate we will be migrating to symptomatic testing for staff only. We will continue to follow all screening protocols for staff and students. The student protocols are outlined in our return to face-to-face plane under the remote learning tab. Regarding students, we will not be requiring COVID unless they are requested to do so by a physician. Our ‘maroon and gold’ days will remain the same. It’s our hopes to have the bus schedule out by the end of the day or tomorrow.”
Vickie Bradley, secretary of EBCI Public Health and Human Services, confirmed that they worked with Swain County to facilitate a CCS vaccine event on Feb. 26.
Superintendent Murray says that while he is ecstatic to have students returning, he is not taking the situation for granted. He says they always wanted to bring them back but protecting the community and Tribal elders have been at the forefront of his mind.
“Why in the world would we work this hard to keep everybody safe, and then the last few months jeopardize that by going straight through any type of precautions that we’ve been taking to this point? So, we will open up, but we’re going to open up with Plan B. We’re going to keep the measures we know are effective until we get through this pandemic,” said Murray.
He said that adapting is part of education, but this has pushed that concept to unprecedented limits.
“I really felt that I was prepared for almost anything that could come, and every year it surprises you how many things that you’re facing that you didn’t really expect to come. But you learn to make decisions that are best for kids, and you work through it. Nothing could ever prepare an educator for dealing with what we’ve had to deal with since last March.”
Monday, Mar. 15, will be the first day of ‘return to learn.’ The ‘Maroon’ group will be the first to attend on Monday and Tuesday. That group consists of the following communities:
- 3200 Acre Tract
- Big Cove
‘Gold’ will be in-person on Wednesday and Thursday and is made of these communities:
- Big Y
- All off-boundary students
Friday will act as a fully remote day for both groups. Superintendent Murray said that any parents who wish to keep their students in Plan C have that option. He mentioned that losing students was one of the concerns when CCS initially decided to stay in Plan C. However, he said that enrollment has not dropped during this time.
Students and staff will be required to abide by the ‘Three Ws’ at all times while on campus. School transportation will be based on a student’s assigned group, with buses holding the same safety guidelines and are limited to one student per seat.
For more information, follow updates on the Cherokee Central Schools Facebook page or go to https://www.ccs-nc.org/.