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Improving climate and culture among top issues for superintendent as students return for new school year

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About 54,000 students will be back in class on Monday in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

Now in her second year as superintendent, Tricia McManus talked to the Winston-Salem Journal about a number of topics, starting with what has her most excited about the new school year:

“We’ve tried to narrow our focus down to these two big rocks, and our intense focus on these rocks will be impactful this year.

“One will be on the culture and climate in our schools, the environment we’re trying to build for our students, an environment that is more restorative vs. punitive, an environment where you will see more consistency from school to school in how behavior is handled. Kids should be able to learn from their mistakes and still remain in our school community, feel accepted and learn to move on from them and become great adults.

“The other big rock is around literacy and making sure we’re forging ahead on our 90-by-’25 work (to have 90% of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025) so that our teachers in elementary grades have the support they need to provide high-quality literacy instruction throughout the day. But (our goal) is to have it going all the way through to 12th grade, across content areas. So there’s a push for literacy across all K-12.

“Another new thing is emphasizing student voice. How are we slowing down to give students time to talk to each other and trusted adults? I’ve been listening to kids all summer, and they said the same thing. They need time outside this heavy push on academics to really talk and even through homeroom periods, morning meetings. Now more than ever, it needs to be more than, ‘You’re going to walk into this school, and it’s going to be academics all day.’ I think you’re going to see a renewed focus on culture and climate in our schools.”

On security

McManus said one of the first, easiest steps is to reinforce the locking of all doors in the building — that includes entrance and exit doors and classroom doors.

“This is the most minimal (step),” McManus said. “You have to use things already in place. Is it new? No. Is it going to be enforced? Yes. It’s a ramping up and reminder of what needs to be done.”

At schools with multiple buildings, such as East Forsyth and West Forsyth high schools, students will need to type in their student identification numbers on newly installed keypads that control doors into buildings. The keypads are one of the security measures in the 2016 bond that voters approved.

Students can expect to see portable metal detectors in use from time to time. In March, the school district was awarded a $322,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Center for School Safety for 73-walk-thru metal detectors that will be used at the schools and administrative buildings as needed.

Each middle and high school has been given two of the portable metal detectors. The metal detectors are not meant to be used every day, but school leaders will have flexibility to use them when needed in their schools and special events on campus.

“You’re going to see them go up periodically,” McManus said. “The best deterrent is that they go up periodically so that kids will see them. If there is a threat, they will go up that day.”

One week into 2021-22 school year, one student brought a gun onto the campus and fatally shot another student at Mount Tabor. In all, the school district confiscated seven guns.

On improving the student experience

McManus has frequently mentioned over the last few months that local students have said that they don’t feel a sense of belonging while at school. To address that, McManus has made it a goal that every student in the district connect with some sort of extracurricular activity.

In June, the school board approved partnering with local organizations to provide before- and after-school care, tutoring and mentoring programs for schools. The programs, paid for with federal COVID relief dollar, include the YMCA, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Youth Style Fitness.

“We want every student connected to something in their school, whether it’s a club, a sport, student government, whatever it may be. The only way to know what that might be is to know every one of your students. We’re sharing with high schools that in the first few weeks of school make sure there is a one-on-one with every student. Every student has a conversation so someone knows what it is that excites you. If the clubs don’t exist, how do we create them?” she said.

On COVID

The start of the school year will look much as it did in 2019 — with no mask mandate and students back in the classroom.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention drastically relaxed some of its guidelines for schools, calling for an end to quarantines for people who have come in close contact with someone infected with COVID. In its recommendation, the CDC noted the high level of immunity in people who have either gotten infected or vaccinated.

The CDC advises people who live in counties with high transmission level to wear a high-quality masks indoors. However, there is no mask mandate in the city, making it unlikely that the school district will recommend one of its own.

McManus said the school district will continue to get guidance from the local and state health department and the ABC Science Collaborative, a Duke University-led program of scientists that advise school districts, and it will continue to post a dashboard listing new case on its website.

“We are still taking it seriously.” McManus said of the pandemic. “We’ll still have our COVID coordinators in school. We’ll have hand sanitizers and be reinforcing things like washing hands and keeping classrooms clean. We’re letting schools make decisions on eating outdoors.”

The school board recently approved using federal COVID relief funds to buy 215 outdoor tables, but the order is on backlog because of supply-chain issues. The district already has 200 outdoor tables that are used in schools throughout the county.

On relief for teachers

The back-to-school story across the nation is the shortage of teachers, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is not immune. Though McManus said she is not in “panic-mode,” the district is expected to have nearly 100 vacant teacher positions on the first day of school, leading the district to find ways to provide instruction without adding to the burden of teachers.

One example is paying teachers more money to teach additional students because of a classroom vacancy.

“There are lots of solutions that add on to people’s plate, but that compensates them,” McManus said.

Besides compensation, the district plans to ease the demands of teachers in other ways, including making sure every teacher has a duty-free lunch and a planning period, areas that teachers regularly have had to sacrifice.

“Every adult should get 30 minutes to decompress, have a bite to eat while not supervising children,” she said. “And that has not been the norm. There are people who have told me that they would teach four periods without a bathroom break. How do you do that? Those are the strategic things we have to do.”

336-727-7420

@lisaodonnellWSJ

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