By Mike McClure

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona kicked off his “Help is Here” school reopening tour with a visit to Laurel Elementary School last Wednesday in Laurel. After touring three classrooms, Cardona held a roundtable discussion with Laurel School District administrators and staff. Wednesday’s stop in Laurel followed a visit to a school in Boston on Tuesday.

“Laurel does what we want so many of our districts to do,” Cardona said in response to a question on why he was visiting Laurel Elementary. He added that the district is engaged with its community, is working to permanently close the digital divide, and is working together as a team.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks to Laurel administrators and staff during a roundtable discussion at the Laurel Elementary School. Cardona visited three classrooms during his visit to the school. Photo by Mike McClure

The school visits are part of the Biden Administration’s efforts to support states, schools, students, parents, and educators as they navigate returning to in-person learning and highlight how the American Rescue Plan will aid them in these efforts.

Cardona visited the classrooms of Laurel Elementary School teachers Casey Bean, Kathy Shockley, and Kim Insley prior to the roundtable discussion.

“Despite their jobs being turned upside down, they are smiling,” he said of the teachers. “We’re going to be better than we were before. I’m confident that we can reopen schools as quickly as possible.”

Cardona said the COVID numbers that have gone up have been through community transmission rather than through the schools. He added that community members have to do their part to help lower the spread.

“Leading through a pandemic has been the most challenging thing of my life,” Cardona said prior to the start of the roundtable discussion.

Laurel Superintendent Dr. Shawn Larrimore updated the secretary on Laurel’s efforts to educate its students amid the pandemic. “It’s been a journey of course corrections and lessons learned,” Larrimore.

Larrimore said the district has dealt with the digital divide and a large number of cases spread throughout the Laurel community, twice the state average. In response to the digital divide, every family in the district in need received a device and an internet connection. The district also used a combination of mitigation and testing as well as hosting vaccination clinics at the middle school and high school.

The district was fully remote until Nov. 9 when it began hybrid learning. Two days into the return, the district went back to remote learning due to operational capacity issues.

Laurel began phased in reopenings on Jan. 12 and has not had any operational capacity issues since returning to hybrid learning. Larrimore said the district doubled up on the number of substitutes it had to help address this issue.

Following this week’s spring break, the Laurel School District will begin its 3-2 schedule on April 19. One group of students will attend classes at the schools on Monday, Tuesday, and every other Wednesday, while the other group will have in-person learning on Thursday, Friday, and every other Wednesday. There will no longer be a dedicated cleaning day and the school day will be extended.

“You’ve got to course correct, evolving as you go along,” Cardona said in response to Larrimore’s report.

Laurel Director of Transportation Susan Whaley said that while the district is small, it measures 30 miles in width with 13 contractors, 36 busses, and 2,200 students being transported to and from school.

Under state reopening guidelines, there must be three feet of social distance between students on busses and the busses need to be cleaned between runs.

“We feel that our contractors are doing a great job cleaning (the busses). Our bus drivers are doing a great job,” said Whaley.

Laurel Supervisor of Technology Mike Brown spoke about the district’s IT challenges during the pandemic. Brown said the district’s four month plan became a two week plan in order to provide online learning to students. He added that the staff was learning in real time and had to teach parents and teachers how to use the district’s new platform.

Prior to the pandemic, the district had nothing in place to get technology outside the school buildings. Protecting students from things on the internet was also a concern.

Brown said the biggest challenge was dealing with the area’s rural broadband “desert”. Thirty percent of families had no access to broadband internet services and alternatives such as hot spots don’t work for full remote learning.

“The biggest takeaway I had was the internet is no longer a luxury,” Brown said.

“The laptop is the new pencil,” added Cardona.

Laurel Elementary School Teacher of the Year Stacie Mills said teaching students online was a team effort, with parents and grandparents learning how to Zoom and download apps. Both students and teachers had to learn how to navigate the platform.

Behavioral Support Coordinator Jessica Nowacki-Burns is dealing with students social and emotional wellness. She said students made adjustments to deal with the situations created by the coronavirus.

“Distance learning was a challenge for families and students,” she said, adding that being back face to face is a positivity for students’ overall mental wellbeing.

The district also has a nurse in every building, and two in the elementary school, to deal with the students’ physical wellbeing.

Assistant Superintendent Ashley Giska reported on the district’s plans for spending its American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding. A committee of 24 stakeholders met and focussed on learning acceleration, equity, and the effects of the pandemic on students’ mental health.

“I’m excited to see what can happen with the American Rescue Plan,” Cardona said.