Hendersonville – In-school learning is more productive for student learning and social interaction during this COVID pandemic, Henderson County Public Schools Supt. Dr. John Bryant said in a “State of Education” address.
Dr. Bryant spoke on Dec. 7 in the Henderson County main library branch’s Kaplan Auditorium for a half-hour, then answered written questions for another half-hour. The forum sponsor was the local League of Women Voters. Dozens attended.
Supt. Bryant joined the local school system in 2006 as a teacher. He worked his way up in administration. He handled such roles as athletic coach and bus driver. He even subbed teaching second grade and fifth-grade classes, in Edneyville for one day weeks ago. He said he liked reconnecting with students in a learning mode.
Dr. Bryant emphasized that he has spoken with many of the approximately 13,000 HCPS students as an administrator and since becoming superintendent Dec. 1, 2020. He meets regularly with student government leaders.
The consensus of students he conferred with is they strongly prefer learning to be in-school and not remote. When limited to at-home learning a year ago, “kids said ‘get us into school’ — every day.” A primary reason is they missed “being supported” by a teacher on the spot to answer questions and guide them through lessons.
While in a remote-only phase last year, students missed friends, he noted. He reasoned that “when schools are closed, there are hardships economically for families and socially for students.” Many parents missed workdays and pay, to conduct homeschooling when it was mandated.
HCPS went to remote learning to close the 2019-20 year starting in March of ‘20. The 2020 grads did not get a graduation ceremony.
The school system transitioned in 2020-21 to phases of remote-only then options of virtual or in-school learning. The “modified A/B split” schedule put only half of the students in a school on designated days, and the other half on other days. Dr. Bryant is proud HCPS is in-school only for 2021-22.
Later School Day?
The Tribune asked what are some of the concerns or requests of those student leaders. Bryant said some high school students ask for their school day to start and end an hour later than the current 8 a.m. to 3 p.m schedule. This would enable youths to sleep in later. It would put their departure closer to a parent’s workday that ends at 4 or 5 p.m.
School bus routes are a bonus of a later schedule. Bryant said when he worked in schools in Florida, a 9-4 day for high schools and 7:30 a.m. elementary start made busing more efficient. The same buses could bring in elementary and middle school pupils, then get high school students. HCPS has 111 buses and could retire some even as enrollment grew. All HCPS buses have similar legroom. Newer, longer buses each hold 72 elementary youths.
School Board member Jay Egolf said there is not yet much traction for a later school day, though the matter was discussed in meetings. Supt. Bryant left the door open, saying “stay tuned.”
Parents can better check on school developments by viewing Henderson County Board of Public Education meetings on YouTube. Dr. Bryant said around 5,000 viewers saw the Nov. 8 meeting, in which pandemic rules were eased. Face coverings were made optional indoors across all grades.
In a reversal since then, everyone is required to wear masks when in elementary schools during instructional hours throughout December. This is a post-Thanksgiving break precaution. Yet face coverings are due to again be optional in HCPS schools starting Jan. 1. HCPS notes COVID-19 vaccines are now available to children ages 5-11.
The school board met again Monday. School boards are required by state law to vote monthly on face-covering policies. HCPS policy updates are viewable at: www.HCPSNC.org/ReturnToLearn.
Adjusting, Pitching In
“Teachers keep answering the bell,” while students “keep ‘swimming,’” in dealing with many challenges during the pandemic, Dr. Bryant said. He said students adjusted to the COVID “grind” such as having to wear masks, and “developed survival skills” of adaptation.
His wife, Lisa Bryant, runs Flat Rock Playhouse. There is improv in schools, too. “There used to be a ‘playbook’” for procedures, Supt. Bryant said. “But now there is no script.” Instead, officials “process information” such as the latest COVID case data.
Bryant foresees continued “success” and “problem-ortunites” — facing problems yet with the opportunity to solve them. Employees juggle tasks. He noted there recently were 37 “fill-in drivers” from among child nutrition and others.
Fill-in needs rose along with health-related and other absences, Supt. Bryant said. He said that the proportion of classroom teachers who missed some time rose from the usual 5 percent up to 50 percent over the last year.
“Fatigue” from pandemic-related demands led to many early retirements, Bryant added. He said elder retired teachers are reluctant health-wise to return to a classroom. Competitive pay helps recruit and retain teachers. Dr. Bryant praised Henderson County commissioners for paying more in supplemental pay than most counties do – 8.75 percent above the state base salary for teachers and other certified staff, and 6.50 percent higher for non-certified personnel. He hopes for further raises. Bryant also appreciates how 3 percent of the county property tax dedicates about $5 million to schools. He noted 85 percent of the $140 million HCPS budget is personnel-related. “People are our most valuable asset.”
Appreciation boosts teacher retention – such as by positive parental input to administrators. Bryant suggested parents relay what their children said specifically was “exciting, challenging and uplifting” in school that day.
Mitchell, Boyd Honored
Supt. Bryant singled out Mills River second grade teacher Ryan Mitchell as a “rock star” – for spreading enthusiasm to students. Mitchell is the newly-honored teacher of the year in WNC, which has 14 districts and is among nine regions statewide.
Meanwhile, Hendersonville High School’s new building was formally dedicated on Saturday as the Campbell Boyd Building. Bryant calls it “spectacular.” Cam Boyd donated his Boyd Auto property beside HHS to Henderson County. That helped the county afford HHS expansion. Supt. Bryant also praised the new Edneyville Elementary as the “crown jewel of elementary schools” in WNC.