Pandemic adds challenges to start of year at Dalton High School

Ryan Anderson/Daily Citizen-News

Because this school year is taking place amid the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, communication with students and parents will be more pivotal than ever before, said Stephanie Hungerpiller, Dalton High School's principal. "We have to communicate everything effectively."

Stephanie Hungerpiller, who officially took over July 1 as Dalton High School's principal from the retiring Steve Bartoo after being assistant principal since 2016, could never have imagined her first year would be conducted in the fog of a global pandemic.

"In all my years in education, I've learned to expect the unexpected, because no two days are the same, and that's part of the reason I love my job," she said. "You learn from those experiences, but this is different, because there is no experience to take from."

Consequently, collaboration, always important, is now absolutely vital, she said. "You collaborate as a team, then collaborate some more, and this is the most collaboration we've ever done."

Hungerpiller and her administrative team have "focused on getting as much data as we can regarding safe practices," she said. She'd already been a major proponent of utilizing student data to improve education outcomes, but now she's devouring health data.

"High school kids, they tend to gather, and we want to put processes in place to keep them safe," she said. Having students in classrooms is key, because relationships between youth and teachers are harder to build virtually.

Dalton Public Schools has mandated masks in its facilities except when social distancing can be practiced, temperatures are being taken before entry is granted into buildings and good hygiene techniques — such as rigorous and repeated washing of hands — are being emphasized like never before. Additionally, Dalton Public Schools students have started the year attending in-person classes only two days per week, while learning from home the other three days, and all students had the option of choosing total virtual education this year. High school and middle school students are set to begin attending four days per week starting Sept. 21, then five days per week beginning Oct. 19.

"It's not just one thing we have to do (to foster a safe environment), but many," Hungerpiller said. Communication with students and parents will also be more pivotal than ever before, so "we have to communicate everything effectively."

Superintendent Tim Scott has "been impressed with (Hungerpiller's) work with our administrative team this summer as we planned and prepared for the opening of school," he said. Hungerpiller and her staff have done "an amazing job" thus far of meeting the needs of students attending school in person while also "engaging the remaining 38% of students who chose digital learning."

When Dalton High School had to shift to full digital instruction for the final two months of the 2019-20 academic year in mid March, the school was ahead of many others because "we've been pushing tech integration here over the past several years," Hungerpiller said. "We're a one-to-one school," meaning all students have their own tech devices, and "students knew how to use Canvas, our online platform, already."

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