On Tuesday, Aug. 4, Forsyth County Board of Education Chairperson Nancy Roche and I were given the opportunity by the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce to present at our “State of the Schools” event. I am grateful for the support we receive from the Chamber and our business community. Every year, we look forward to this event to highlight our accomplishments and share updates on plans moving forward. Not surprisingly, the focus of this year’s event was the opening of Forsyth County Schools amidst a global pandemic.
I have had the great fortune of working in public education since 1984. I’ve held various positions, worked in six different school systems in two states. It’s been a wonderful career. However, as is true with any profession, it has had its challenges. No challenge has ever been greater than the current environment.
Last spring, I was incredibly proud of how our teachers, students, parents and community came together to navigate a very challenging end to our school year. My heart hurt for the Class of ’20. They missed out on their spring activities, including prom. Sometimes things happen in life that are simply unfair. This was one of them. But they will persevere. Life will move forward.
Throughout this summer, my staff and I have worked to create plans to reopen our schools. We had to prepare for different scenarios. We still do. As we all know, this virus does not come with a game plan or a road map.
After we surveyed our community, it became clear to all of us that we had to give our families a choice. Some are genuinely afraid to send their children back to school. Some are fully prepared to send their children back to school. Some have no choice but to send their children back to school. I have heard from all of them.
So, what is my why? Why as your superintendent did I recommend to our Board of Education that school start back on Aug. 13 for both virtual and face to face instruction?
First, I follow the data. When I presented at the “State of the Schools,” about 0.77% of our community had been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March. That is less than 1% of our entire community. That factors in my recommendation. Yes, there was an uptick in cases throughout the month of July. As of today, that does seem to be leveling off. I will continue to follow the data, and data will continue to drive my decisions and recommendations.
I was asked at the “State of the Schools” event if I was concerned about test scores. Test scores? No, that is the last thing I am concerned about. My primary concern is the safety and social and emotional well-being of our students. There is other data I follow as well.
We have over 7,000 children in our community living in poverty. They rely on us for nutrition as well as academic and many social services. We have done a good job serving them remotely. We will serve them much better face to face. I have heard from these families. They must work. If they must stay home to help coach their child in a virtual environment, their livelihoods will suffer. I have had several share with me that they are on the verge of losing everything. That factors in my decision.
We have over 7,000 children in our community with a learning disability. Some of them have several. Some of the disabilities are severe. Our special education teachers have performed heroic work while serving these children and their families virtually. They are much better served face to face. That factors in my decision.
Sadly, we have children in our community who face neglect and abuse. Our social workers and counselors are heroes too. When we find out about the cases, we do what we can to make sure these children have the support, resources and love they need to overcome these horrible circumstances. But, if these children are not in school, we have a very difficult time in identifying who needs our help. These children, like all children, need a champion. We can’t be their champion if we don’t know they exist. That factors in my decision.
Last count, we had over 600 children in our community that have been labeled as homeless. Whenever I share this number publicly, I get some very surprised looks. Most folks have no idea we have that many. But, it is even worse than that. Nearly 100 of these children are unaccompanied minors. What does that mean? They are completely on their own. These students often do not know from day to day where they are going to sleep or if they are going to have food. Our team does an incredible job supporting these students. We serve them better if we see them every day. They need to be in school. That factors in my decision.
Recently, a parent emailed me and challenged me on whether I care about the safety of our students. I get it. These are challenging and frustrating times. I’m human, though. And that bothered me. Obviously, it still does. I chose this profession because I love working with children. It’s been my life’s work. So, yes I care. I care deeply.
The safety of our students is not just about COVID-19. Yes, this is a horrible virus and it is highly contagious. That’s a fact. As your superintendent, I must consider the overall safety of our students and staff. Yes, I must think about the virus, but I also must think about the social and emotional well-being of all our students. I must think about our impoverished children and their families who are struggling to get by, students with disabilities, those who are in abusive or neglectful environments and those who are homeless.
I have shared with our staff on many occasions what drives my decision making. I have raised three beautiful children. The guiding question for me is always the same. What would I want for my own children? My children are now all adults and I don’t have to make the choice of whether I would send them back to school. No doubt, I know what I would do. They would go to school. They would wear a mask. They would be advised to stay as distant as possible from staff and peers alike. I would monitor them closely.
So, that’s my why. Some of you will agree. Some will disagree. That goes with the job. I do ask this. Let’s try our best to model for all our children what it means to be a good citizen. Let’s be respectful of one another, care for one another and, even when we disagree, let’s show love and compassion to one another. In time, this will pass, and life will return to normal. I hope we will all look back at this very challenging time and be proud of how well we responded. Challenges create opportunities. Let’s seize this moment. I look forward to another year serving the children of Forsyth County.
Dr. Jeff Bearden is Superintendent of the Forsyth County Schools system.