On March 12 last year, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Gordon County.
Just a day later on March 13, local schools closed their campuses for two weeks to help prevent spread of the virus. Those closures were later extended and teachers, parents, staff, students and so many others had to learn to adapt to what has been coined ‘the new normal.’
Now, a year into the pandemic, district superintendents are taking a look back at what it was like to lead through COVID and the enormous pressure that comes with making quick but vital decisions during a global health crisis.
Gordon County Schools
Superintendent Kimberly Fraker said leading Gordon County Schools through the pandemic was similar to being a basketball player.
“Everything moves fast and the situation changes quickly. You have to be able to pivot and adjust on the go. Your mind is in a defensive mode as you evaluate the threads and then shifts to offense as you plan your next move toward the goal,” she said. “You are part of a team, and you depend on the team to work as a cohesive group, trusting each other to ultimately win the game.”
Relying on her team is not something she was ever concerned about. Fraker said she knew from the very first day that she had an excellent group of people around that she could rely on for help and advice. From the COVID task force led by Emergency Management Director Courtney Taylor to the individual teachers working with students every day, she was confident.
Now, Fraker said she knows that confidence was not misplaced. Every person in every position within the school system played a vital role in making sure children in the community were able to continue their education while also being as healthy and safe as possible.
Those on the COVID Task Force, a group Fraker called a “blessing,” met consistently from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and are still meeting regularly now to discuss how best to serve students and their families. Teachers developed lesson plans and utilized digital learning to teach their lessons virtually. Staff pitched in to help with cleaning and sanitizing. There were no idle hands.
“I believe our Gordon County Schools family agrees none of us can do this alone. We each have a support network in place within our system that makes it possible for us to do the good work that our parents and students depend on,” Fraker said. “I want to express my sincere appreciation for each individual faculty and staff member across our system who make it possible for our students to be here in-person each day and online if needed. This is a herculean task and we have strong, wonderful, caring people that make it happen every day.”
Asked how she found inspiration or ideas about how to be a good leader in a truly unprecedented situation, Fraker said she found daily devotional readings and active church membership to be incredibly important. She also said she found inspiration in the faces of her students.
“When you ground yourself in a purpose greater than yourself, you have the focus and energy to carry you through trials as they come,” she said.
Gordon County Schools will keep many of the processes and procedures that were implemented in place through the remainder of the school year and into the future. Fraker said improved cleaning protocols and cleaning products and new arrival and dismissal procedures at the schools and on buses will definitely continue.
“I shared with our leadership team early in the pandemic that if we fail to learn from this, we are missing the message and wasting precious time,” Fraker said. “We have said many times that some changes we have made are truly improvements to our processes and procedures.”
Calhoun City Schools
Calhoun City Schools Superintendent Michele Taylor described leading through COVID-19 as being similar to navigating an “emotional roller coaster” through unchartered territory. It became vital to learn to make decisions quickly but with tons of forethought, thinking through each and every part of a plan during the evaluation stage prior to its launch.
“I think John Maxwell sums up what it’s been like to lead through COVID — ‘Being able to navigate for others requires a leader to possess a positive attitude. You’ve got to have faith that you can take your people all the way. If you can’t confidently make the trip in your mind, you’re not going to be able to take it in real life. On the other hand, you also have to be able to see the facts realistically. Sometimes it’s difficult balancing optimism and realism, intuition and planning, faith and fact. But that’s what it takes to be effective as a navigating leader,’” she said.
The stress and pressure of being the sole person holding the office of superintendent could sometimes be a lonely experience, Taylor said. Even so, she found comfort in working with other community leaders like Dr. Fraker and Emergency Management Director Courtney Taylor. The Board of Education was an incredible source of support, as were members of the COVID-19 Task Force and several of her personal mentors.
During the most challenging days of the pandemic, she never felt like she was going it alone.
“On March 16th, Governor Kemp signed an Executive Order closing all public schools until the end of the month and then later declared that all schools would remain closed for the remainder of the school year. When I reflect, I would say that period was the most challenging but, I would also say that I was encouraged by the show of support from our students, teachers and staff, parents and the entire community,” Taylor said.
From the very first day of the very first school closure, she said she saw people move to assist with meal preparations and deliveries. Bus drivers and school nutrition staff never complained, instead showing up as “true heroes” day in and day out to take care of students in the community. Staff members volunteered their free time in March, April, May and throughout the summer to help feed students. Laptops were provided to students. Mobile hotspots were deployed. It was, she said, a true community effort.
Specifically, Taylor thanked the district’s principals, leadership team and contract tracing team. She also praised Student Services Director Amanda Schutz and Chief Human Resources Officer Dr. Michelle Palmer for their efforts to lead the contact tracing teams, School Nutrition Director Kim Kiker and her team for never skipping a beat and Transportation Director Tom Griffith, Geary Cooper and all of the bus drivers who continued to deliver meals and provide services for students and families.
“So many staff members volunteered during school closures and throughout the summer to ensure that the needs of all of our students were met,” Taylor said. “I still get emotional thinking about how awesome the support has been.”
Hope is one word Taylor uses often when describing her approach to pandemic leadership. Faith is another.
She said she “kept the faith” and trusted that even though things were difficult, the district could and would successfully ride the wave. In her personal life, faith was just as important. Taylor has prayed for guidance every day since the start of the pandemic and said she has faith that though no one can be sure when things will be “normal” again, they will be — and Calhoun City Schools will be ready.
A newer, stronger school system will emerge, ready to face its next chapter with the benefit of new processes and procedures developed during the pandemic. Most, Taylor said, are the result of increased awareness of safety and security. Utilizing technology for communication purposes is another change that will continue.
“While in-person meetings are optimal, the option to host a quick Zoom call versus spending time traveling to and from meetings has also been helpful and something we will continue to do even after COVID,” she said. “Making our school environments safer with heightened sanitation efforts will continue, especially through cold and flu seasons.”
Asked what she would say if she could speak directly to students and their families about COVID-19, Taylor said she could never say thank you enough.
“When I see and hear about the challenges in other school districts across our nation, I feel extremely blessed to be here in Calhoun, Gordon County where we are fortunate to have such an overwhelming sense of support and love,” Taylor said. “Thank you, Calhoun. You’ve focused on what matters: our students, our people, our organizations and our community.”
Kelcey Walker is a reporter for the Calhoun Times in Calhoun, Ga.