Resilience, grit, commitment, perseverance and adversity.
These are just a handful of words to sum up the 2020-21 school year for students, teachers, staff members and administrators.
Rather than viewing it as a year to forget, although an understandable view for many who work in education, we prefer to think of it as a year to celebrate. In many ways, the year demonstrated what can be done when professional, caring educators, committed, passionate parents and flexible, resilient kids of all ages work together to make the best out of an impossible situation. The school year was by no means perfect, but that’s an unrealistic goal anyway. There were trials and tribulations, as inevitable each school year. The 2020-21 version brought the most unique challenges ever for teachers and students, but the will and ability to overcome and pivot by all involved was inspiring.
The spirit alive and well this month as schools wrapped up the waning days of the year seemed more celebratory than usual. Something seemed different and we think it’s because there was also incredible relief involved. The school year was finally ending. Taking some time to embrace the final days of a challenging year was entirely appropriate.
Over the last couple weeks, the workload lightened, and the moods brightened for the summer ahead, resulting in some time to reflect. It provided some moments for everyone to remember the progress that has been made as a society but also for educators and students far and wide to recall the monumental obstacles overcome. Looking back before moving ahead is a smart approach.
The school year began in the fall entirely virtual. Worcester was the first school system in Maryland in late September to welcome back its first wave of in-person students. Those with special needs and unique home circumstances – such as those whose parents were teachers as well as those with bad internet connections – were soon joined with a phased-in approach as more students returned to the classroom. The progress halted on a Sunday afternoon in mid-November when positivity numbers spiked. Teachers were told to educate from home, and virtual learning returned until early January when the phased approach was reset, and a hybrid model began. Students were rotated with one week in the school and the next virtual. With metrics heading in the right direction and confident in protocols, all Worcester County students who wanted to be back in the classroom were ultimately welcomed back in early March to in-person instruction. About 75% of the entire student body returned to the classroom five days a week.
A review of Worcester County Superintendent of Schools Lou Taylor’s many messages over the year confirms how far we have come in this return to normalcy and the many difficulties the journey had along the way. Yes, the school year was a masked roller coaster ride for everyone involved, but a look around the state confirms Worcester County families had it better than others.
As for the next school year, there is no question county students will return to the classroom in the fall if they wish. It appears likely it will be without masks entirely. This good news should be appreciated because it was not that long ago it did not seem reasonable to expect.
Throughout this memorable school year, Worcester County Public Schools has been a leader in not only Maryland but the mid-Atlantic region. The school year ends with Worcester County being the only school system in Maryland with students in school five days a week. Most school systems finished the year under a hybrid model because they could not make the logistics work.
As we head into summer, we thank the Worcester school system leaders who navigated this wild ride adeptly with the goal clearly stated along the way. It was evident the county wanted as many students back in the classroom as possible. There was never a lot of smoke and mirrors when it came to virtual learning. Teachers did the best they could and should be celebrated for their ability to pivot and educate, but it was obvious it was not how they wanted to be engaging with their kids. It was a flawed mode of learning for most students.
Unclear other school systems that struggled with communications and clearly stating their efforts, the goal was always clear in Worcester County. It was to return to the classroom responsibly and with confidence. The protocols were spelled out clearly. The pandemic was handled as best as it could possibly be. School system decision makers were aggressive trailblazers when they needed to be and cautious at the right times. Hindsight shows the pandemic was handled exceptionally well. Our students suffered this school year at times, but they had the best opportunities in the state to learn.
We in Worcester County should be proud of our schools. The school system’s motto was “Worcester Strong,” and it and all the individuals who comprise it were just that.