Silver Linings Series, Chadron's Jerry Mack: Conversations around COVID-19

Silver Linings Series, Chadron's Jerry Mack: Conversations around COVID-19

By Tyler Dahlgren

*This is the second installment in the three-part “Conversations Around COVID”. This discussion occurred on November 16 for an article titled “Silver Linings (Without the Playbook),” which ran in the winter edition of the NCSA Today Magazine.

Jerry Mack is principal at Chadron High School, and his podcast “Chadron Cardinal Cast”, which he records with school counselor Loni Watson, can be found on Apple Podcasts.

Q: Think back to March, if you can, and tell me what you remember about how you felt when schools across Nebraska were closed on a dime and students and staff were scrambling to find a way to move forward. Now that you've had some time to digest that point in time, what was it like going through something so chaotic and historically unprecedented as a school administrator?

I'm glad you put it that way. So the truth for us, and I think it's probably similar for other districts, we left for spring break, which our girls basketball team backed that up another week by qualifying for state basketball. So I was down in Lincoln for state basketball the first of March and there was some talk about COVID. It was something that you were hearing about, and then the second week, literally one week later, it became a bigger topic and they limited some attendance of the games. That's the weekend of our spring break. And so we leave for spring break on a Wednesday afternoon and we're going to have a four-day weekend, during the boys state basketball tournament. Around then, we started having discussions as an admin team.

We had met on Saturday, we had met on Sunday, and honestly I don't even remember what our plan was. We developed this plan within a few hours of this admin meeting on Sunday and two hours after that admin meeting, that evening, the ESU made a decision, which I thought was a very good one, that the entire ESU 13, The Panhandle, was going to shut down school. That’s how little notice we had. Sunday evening is when that announcement was made. We had to scramble with how to do remote learning, what teachers had traveled over spring break because they were not going to be allowed in the building until we can go through some precautions.

We have school on Monday, but we only allowed those staff in the building who had not traveled during spring break to try to do some planning. And if I remember right, we had to take a couple of days off. No teachers came in so that we could verify the public health, you know, whether the teachers had traveled, whether they were cleared to enter. Teachers came back on a Wednesday. That was the first time in person we could talk about this thing called remote learning that nobody even considered when we dismissed school the Wednesday before.

On Thursday, we get hit with a blizzard and so we ended up with two days where teachers could be in the building that we could due to the travel precautions and doing the checks and the winter storm. We had two days of training and an entire week where teachers were available. On Monday, we started remote learning. The words you used I thought were pretty good, but it was just one of those Apollo 13 kind of things to some degree, as far as putting this together without being face to face but for about two days during that week. We had static accommodations in place on Monday, which was amazing.

It was just an incredible experience hitting a true crisis to figure this thing called remote learning that nobody even had on their mind, or at least we hadn't, and we're doing free lunches for the kids in the community, and trying to figure out who has internet. Every school dealt with that with trying to survey and figure out where internet access was needed. We’re one-to-one with Chromebooks for high school, but even so, we have families that choose not to take them because they just don't want internet access in their home.

It was just an incredible experience, seeing how educators do the amazing things they do. They just showed remarkable resolve.

And then we're figuring out proms in graduations and those things. We made a decision early to go with a virtual graduation, a celebration. The kids were adamant. They did not want a virtual graduation in May. They wanted a chance for graduation in July, but I sold them. I had a senior class Zoom meeting with their parents and I sold them on the fact that they deserve a celebration on the day of the graduation. So we brought them in one at a time and gave them their diplomas and we filmed a little short video of them and then we pieced it together and we aired it on the day of their graduation. And in hindsight, that was a really good deal because even though they were holding out, they absolutely did not want that virtual ceremony.

They wanted something in July, but come July we couldn't have hosted one anyway. There was just too many restrictions, it wouldn't have felt normal. In hindsight, doing the virtual celebration on their graduation day was a really smart, collective decision.

Q: When you go through something like that, with all that scrambling and all those moving parts, how important are relationships, both inner staff relationships, relationships between the administration and educators and teachers, but also that those relationships between your staff and then the families in your community?

It ended up being the most important thing, and I think the most important ingredient for the positive relationships is trust.

When you look back, I think schools were able to have trust established and I know we were an example of that. I think our parents and our community members trust what we do with students and the quality that we provide. The other thing we got on when we were ready to make our decision that first week of remote, and this was kind of a fluky, convenient thing, my school counselor and I started a weekly podcast. We do a couple of them, actually, one that's more for our community and one for educators around the world.

So we started this weekly podcast and we did it on a Facebook Live while we recorded it and it became this platform that the people in the community became used to. We were building trust because we were having conversations once a week. So the superintendent got on that first week we went remote and she said, "Here's the deal, everyone's going to have an opportunity, the seniors are going to have opportunities to graduate on time. The rest of our students were going to dismiss school on the date scheduled. So we're going to have things done by then.”

The other piece of the relationship that was crucial would be that transparency of the plan that we had, even though they were fluid and quick-to-change out of necessity. But I think that transparency with here's how we're going to start and here's what we're going to try to accomplish received a lot of positive feedback and a lot of appreciation.

You did whatever it was in your power to get that 2019-2020 school year to the finish line but then the work really began. You had three months to prepare for a school year when nobody had any clue what that school year was going to look like. What did that summer look like? I'm sure there wasn't as much relaxation for you, administrators and teachers. How did you prepare for a virtual unknown?

So I'll just speak for myself as an administrator. I need time away from the school in the summer. That's what reenergizes me, and, I'm sorry, but you just weren't going to get it in 2020. As we left that school year, we were switching superintendents, we just hired a new superintendent. So the new superintendent couldn't come shadow. The travel restrictions prevented us from actually working with our new superintendent until late July. That was an additional challenge for us, but I can tell you the leadership from the retiring superintendent, Dr. (Caroline) Winchester and the new one, Ginger Meyer, they were fantastic. They kind of flexed a little bit with the administrators that, "You guys need to kind of protect your time, because we're going to call on you this summer."

Q: When students did come back to school, what were some of the priorities as far as procedures in place in your district to make sure students were as safe as possible during the day?

So we started using spacing around the schools as a protocol. We do 90-minute blocks. So I just implemented that every class, every period, has to take a face mask break. We decided early on that face masks would be expected, was the word we used and it still is. That's still our policy, that face masks are expected. Now, does that mean mandatory? No, probably not. Does it mean required? No, it's expected. So we started taking kids and if I'm expecting them to sit in classrooms for 90 minutes and not all of them provide six-foot spacing, then at least one time during every class, the class will get to leave and go outside. We used outdoor sitting in the grass. We had lawn chair lectures on Fridays and several classes where kids brought their own lawn chairs and they would sit outside for lecture pieces.

We found out where WiFi would reach out on the lawn. We started doing our breakfast instead of doing a hall passing period. I just had classes do, that'd be part of your face mask break, walk your class down, let them get breakfast and kick it outside, where they can take a face mask off. So our goal was just to get a face mask off at least once during each 90 minute block, and that ended up working really well.

Q: This is kind of a broad question and you kind of touched on it there in your answer to the previous one, but how has this fall semester went? One thing that I've heard is that everyday kids are in class is a success for you guys. As an administrator, have you been proud of the adaptability your staff and students have shown every day and how have your kids kind of taken to the new normal?

They're very resilient. Students have been the most resilient.

There's two topics I think I'd like to hit on that. One would be the face mask because that became the big issue. I just want to talk about what I think ended up being a success for us as far as face masks go. We use peer leadership a lot in this school. In other words, every year we open with an assembly where I tell the student body that I work for the seniors, they've earned this position and we give special privileges to the seniors.

And if we have discipline issues, a lot of times we leave it to seniors to address some of that stuff in the halls or locker rooms. It's just expected that way. Well, when we got into this face mask controversy and parents, we weren't hearing a lot from students, but parents were really on either side of the fence with that topic and they were very vocal. So I chose to start the year not talking about face masks from a science scope, or about data or how proven they are to be preventative or anything like that. I purely hit it from a quarantine point of view. So I started referring to it as the “Quarantine Game”.

I just kept repeating over and over to parents and students that last spring, we did the best we could when we went remote, but it was the worst teaching we've ever done in our district. By far, it was the worst instruction we've ever provided for students and the parents and students tended to agree with that. With that, if we want to prevent that from happening again, we need to play this “Quarantine Game”. The game says that if we're wearing masks in the classroom and someone tests positive who is wearing a mask, then we don't have to quarantine the entire classroom. And we started talking about the sports teams. I actually hit it at our sports meetings with students as well, while the parents were there. We just addressed it as the Quarantine Game. If you want to stay in school, if you want to participate, if you don't want to lose those memories, like graduations and proms, like we did last spring, then we needed to play this game. It’s written very clearly that if we're in close contact and we're all wearing a mask, then just the positive case gets quarantined or isolated and not the rest of the students.

That ended up being so effective for us. Our sports teams took it on and probably led the charge. Our football team ended up being probably the best leaders in the building for us to the point where during passing periods when kids are kind of hanging around, students would chant at each other. Football players would get after volleyball team, "Wear your mask," if it was down below their nose. So it kind of became this game, this little contest, and I'm telling you the students is what got us through that. They accepted that challenge. They understood the rules. We made it very clear of how public health lists these quarantine rules, and they just followed it and it ended up working very well for us.

At one time, we had a neighboring school that had over 100 students in their high school were quarantined at. We lost an opportunity to play one of our football games to a school because of the mask quarantine and our students were upset by that. They were upset that they're losing because other schools aren't playing in the Quarantine Game. So it was just really effective.

The other topic I want to talk about real quick because I know you're running out of time would be the resiliency of students and the resiliency of teachers, but the part that I think is being missed is how hard teachers are having to work this year. So I had a couple of adults at different times in the last month or so who made a comment about, "Schools look pretty normal. Other than a face mask on everyone, school looks normal." And I agree with that and I think that's a pat on the back, but what you can't see as an observer is that every day we're going to have students gone from class. For instance, let's say a teacher's teaching a geometry class and they normally have 20 students in that third block class. Well, any given day, there's going to be 17 of them there because three of them are out because of symptoms and we want students to do the right thing, which is stay at home when you're sick.

Well, who's having to take care of the three kids that are gone on that day? The teachers. We implemented Google Classroom. We have access to more digital folders and files through Google Drive. So the expectation is if a student is out sick, they still have access to their curriculum, to their learning via email and Google Classroom. Well, who then has to constantly converse with these students that are absent? It's the teachers. So the teachers are required to give more time in the evenings and on the weekends. You know how teachers are, they're going to do it whenever they get that email from the student. You'd like to think, oh they'll just be on their planning period. Well, in their planning period, they’re serving other colleagues that are out sick.

And so, more and more, teachers, and I know I'm an example, I've served more this year than I ever have, but teachers have been covering for each other as well. So that's the part I think that the public doesn't see, is just how hard it’s been and how much time has to be put in this year to make the school year look normal.

So it's kind of like that duck that on top of the water, it looks like they're swimming really smoothly, but underneath, they're just paddling so hard.

We made a decision as an administrative group this year that the greatest gift we can give teachers right now is time. We have some early out Fridays, roughly every other week. We made the decision this last month that these are not going to be for meetings. It's just going to be for them to have the time to work on their curriculum, time for them to converse with those students and then when the students do come back after being absent, you can imagine it's a lot of work to play catch up. So I think that's the greatest gift we can give teachers right now is time and just want to make sure that we kind of make a mention that there's a lot of resiliency this year, but there's been a lot of effort that's gone into this school year as well.

Q:As a leader in your school building, what makes you so proud to be in Chadron and a part of that culture there at your school?

Well, I'm proud of the trust that our students, parents and our community members give us. I'm just proud of the trust that they give us when we come up with these protocols.

I'm just proud that people are following the protocols and filling in for each other. It's been a lot of work, whether I'm serving for teachers, whether people are serving for our office assistants, whether teachers are serving for each other. We’ve all been there for each other, and that’s a community-wide thing. It's just been a lot of work, but I really appreciate that trust.