Judy Gilreath: Seniors earned their diplomas, persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic

Judy Gilreath

Each of us has dates and events we will always remember. Teachers usually remember the excitement of getting their first job, the shock of seeing how much was deducted from their first paycheck, and the butterflies in their tummies when they met their first classroom of students.

Teachers, students and parents will long remember the school year 2019-2020 because Friday, March 13, 2020, was the educational equivalent of a natural disaster. This was the date that our schools closed due to the new coronavirus (COVID-19). Teachers sent their students home not knowing when they would see them again.

It was especially hard because teachers don’t just educate their students in math or English or social studies or science. At various times teachers are called upon to be their students’ coaches, nurses, counselors, mentors and nutrition providers. This was the date that roles changed for many educators. With very little advance notice, teachers found themselves having to adjust their methods of teaching from in-person instruction to using Choice Boards and online classrooms.

The education of our students wasn’t the only challenge that faced us when school was closed. Whitfield County Schools has a 70% free and reduced meal rate, which means that the majority of our children depend on the school system to help supply their nutritional needs. Our nutrition employees quickly joined with our transportation department to make sure our students received nutritious meals while they were absent from school. During this time, they prepared and delivered 346,084 meals to our students within a few weeks, and they will continue to feed our students over the summer months. This has been a difficult transition for teachers and students, but our teachers and staff worked together to take care of our kids.

Parents have also struggled during the coronavirus crisis. Schools in almost all states closed and sent kids home to finish out the school year. This wasn’t just a local or state problem. According to a United Nations report, nearly 300 million students worldwide were affected by school closings.

Additional stress was added to families when businesses began to close their doors. Many parents were either out of work or working from home during this time. The stress of financial uncertainty for families was made more difficult due to the task of supervising instructional time for their sometimes reluctant learners, but teachers and parents worked together to continue to educate their children.

This is a difficult time for all of us, but probably the ones most affected by the pandemic are our senior students. Senior year should be a year of fun and celebration. This year our seniors have lost many of the events that they should have enjoyed. Proms, parties, participation in spring sports and awards ceremonies are just a few of the events that seniors have missed this year.

Seniors and their parents are grieving most over the loss of the traditional graduation ceremony that has long been the culminating activity for 13 long years of study and hard work. As a superintendent, I grieve for them, but this is not solely my decision to make. Due to state restrictions on public gatherings and the requirement to socially distance, our choices of a graduation are limited.

However, this month Whitfield County Schools, like other schools across our nation, will strive to provide our seniors with an alternate graduation that will celebrate this outstanding class of individuals.

Seniors of the class of 2020, remember that you are special! You were met with challenges that no other senior class in the history of Whitfield County Schools has ever faced, yet you didn’t let these challenges get in the way of you receiving your diploma. You will be able to say with pride that you met your goal of graduating even though you were faced with a worldwide pandemic.

You will have many milestones ahead in your life but receiving your high school diploma puts you well on your way to success!

Judy Gilreath is superintendent of Whitfield County Schools.

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