Meeting to the Max

It’s an early Wednesday afternoon. The classrooms are empty, and the hallways are deserted. All the faculty are meeting in the auditorium to discuss the best way to advance the school through this year and into the future.

These meetings have an impact on everything from changes due to the pandemic to the very future of the school. They are the reason this school year has turned out the way that it has.

Principal Mr. Steve Straessle has been a major part of the discussions. “We talk about a variety of things depending on the circumstances in which the school finds itself,” said Mr. Straessle. “For example, in almost every meeting, we discuss individual students who are in need of extra assistance. That’s almost every meeting.

“But lately, the focus has been our approach to the pandemic,” said Mr. Straessle. “Ever since we reopened the school, we have discussed how the get more kids on campus. We think that is the best way for students to learn. We talked about when the timing would be right to put fourteen to eighteen-year-olds together in a group setting. We also talked about the limitations and opportunities we would have in doing so.”

However, meetings determining the future of the school were occurring even before the pandemic. “Previous to this year, we discussed a lot of the nuts and bolts of the school,” said Mr. Straessle. “We discussed scheduling, adding Chromebooks, and what technology we needed. We went through this three-year process of meeting regularly about mixing old-school ideas with new-school technology.”

Not all of these meetings are simply the staff making decisions about the pandemic or the future, however. Some of them are professional development meetings in which the teachers learn about a certain topic, such as technology. “Right now, we’re working with the IDEALS Institute out of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville,” said assistant principal Mr. Matt Dempsey. “It is what you might call diversity and inclusion training. We’re learning how to be more inclusive with the students and our fellow faculty members. We’re learning how to see the value in everybody and not accidentally disregard or devalue people.”

Teachers, as well as the students, have had to be flexible in terms of how they learn. “The professional development meetings have been by and large on Zoom,” said Mr. Dempsey. “And then if we’re having just a regular faculty meeting, then we’re usually going into the auditorium and spreading out.”

Many of the teachers have been active in throwing out ideas or assisting other teachers. “Coach Owen and Mrs. McWilliams come to mind when it comes to technology,” said Mr. Dempsey. “They’ve done a really good job of leading us with their knowledge of technology.”
Secretary Mrs. Rebecca McWilliams has been especially vital to monitoring the situation with Covid-19 at school. “Everybody’s curious about our cases and numbers here at school,” said Mrs. McWilliams. “Luckily we’ve had no spread associated with in-classroom transmission. There’s only been one with athletics, which we quarantined the entire basketball team out of caution. But the main thing is looking at the current guidance from the CDC and the Department of Health—what causes transmission, how to prevent transmission, and how to keep the students here on campus safe.”

Mrs. McWilliams has been the primary person working out the numbers for the school year. “Mrs. McWilliams has done a fantastic job with crunching numbers,” said Mr. Dempsey. “She’s done a great job splitting the Purple and Gold groups and helping us work through how many desks are in rooms.”

While this school year has forced many changes in the way teachers instruct and students learn, not all of them have been bad. The virus has forced the school to advance tremendously in terms of technology and the way the school day is. Among these are personal Chromebooks for students, which had been in the plans for several years, and the ability for students to carry backpacks and water bottles with them throughout the day. Some of these changes, like Chromebooks, have come to stay, but the jury is still out on others.

“When I was in school, we had backpacks,” said Mr. Straessle. “They disappeared about twenty years ago, primarily because kids had seven classes or so, and they were stuffing their bags full of textbooks, and it was a mess. It was like adding an extra piece of furniture with each backpack. But now that we’ve moved to Chromebooks and online textbooks, I think that backpacks will likely stay.”

Another big addition to the classroom this year is something that has been the subject of many debates in the past—waterbottles. “I have been in favor of water bottles for a long time because of the need to hydrate,” said Mr. Straessle. “Hydration is key to how you perform. I think by having water bottles this year, it has shown us that we can have them without a big problem, and I think they will stay as well.”

A piece of technology that might stay is Google Meet, which was essential to the first semester of the school year. “If it’s a Friday and you are traveling for a college visit, as long as you’ve got internet, you’re going to be logged into class,” said Mr. Dempsey.

For a student with a long-term illness, Google Meet could be a viable alternative to in-person school. “After the pandemic is done, we’ll have to work out a way where, if a student is sick yet able to take a virtual class, he’ll be able to still attend,” said Mrs. McWilliams. “I think it would be really great to have in the future, where if a student is sick with something long-term and is feeling better but is not fully recovered, they can keep up with class so that they only miss one or two days instead of five.”

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