NEWLAND — During the past 14 months, the COVID-19 pandemic threw gum in the works of myriad programs and made an indelible impact on all ages. For school-aged students, teachers and the education field as a whole, the virus forced schools to adapt on the fly during its onset, from closing schools to close out a semester to implementing virtual learning, gradual reopening and the establishment in Avery County of an efficient and effective virtual academy to keep the communication lines of teaching open for students learning from home.

As the 2020-21 school year nears a close, summer school may be needed as much this year as ever before, as the sessions will offer the chance for students who were negatively impacted educationally from the pandemic or other external factors to catch up or make up for lost time.

“We do have a lot of ground to be gained and to catch up. I was asked recently how many kids did I think was at risk, and I believe that all our students are at risk. They’re basically all behind because we shut down schools in March of 2020. Who would have ever thought that schools would be closed because of the pandemic?” ACS Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman said. “One thing we’ve been fortunate with in Avery County is that we’ve had kids in school since August 17th at least four days a week, and for those in virtual courses, they’ve been engaged four days a week continuously this year through our Avery Virtual Academy platform, so we’re a little bit more fortunate here than we are in other districts across the state. There are some districts where kids haven’t been in school until the governor’s order in April to go to Plan A. We’re blessed in that aspect, but we have a lot of ground to cover.”

ACS is offering full-day summer school programs this year for all grade levels. The first session of summer school will take place on Monday through Thursday from June 7 through 24, while the second session is slated for Monday through Thursday from July 12 through 29. Students will receive in-person instruction that will help address unfinished learning and academic learning loss.

Summer school hours will take place from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., with elementary summer school classes taking place at Freedom Trail Elementary School and Newland Elementary School. Middle School summer classes will be located at Cranberry Middle School, while high school summer classes will be located at Avery Middle School.

As has been the case throughout the school year, ACS will continue to adhere to COVID-19 protocols during summer school sessions, as students and staff will be required to wear face coverings and practice social distancing while on school property.

“Summer school isn’t going to replace the regular academic year, but hopefully it going to help us get some kids caught back up from where we’ve lost some ground,” Dr. Brigman added. “ We have some restrictions on summer school. We’re required to give basically an extension of the current school year. It won’t be just fun and games, but we’re going to try to make it fun while we’re addressing reading, math and science needs.”

The district is working to monitor students’ academic progress for the current school year as it concludes through its iReady program and teachers’ end-of-grade assessments, but this unique school year doesn’t provide the typical game plan on student assessment over the range of a pandemic-affected school year of instruction.

“It’s difficult with our benchmarks to determine where kids are and where the deficits are because we are using iReady and teacher-made assessments, and we haven’t done the last one (for the school year),” Dr. Brigman and ACS Director of Student Services Cindy Brigman explained. “When we do the end-of-grade, we’ll be able to see where kids are. It doesn’t measure against a whole population. It basically takes a student-by-student approach and looks at their individual gains, so it’s hard to compare our students statewide. We just look at individual growth of students: where were they at the beginning of the school year and what have we done in the meantime in terms of interventions.”

Summer school will provide students a valuable opportunity for enrichment and academic growth during a period of time as well as attempt to gain ground where the various guidelines and protocols surrounding COVID-19 played a role in deterring normal academic development experienced in the typical school year.

“The challenge we’ve had in addition to academic delivery this year has been just the safety protocols and quarantines and the continuous instability or disruptions in the learning environment, taking temperatures and maintaining safety protocols,” Dr. Brigman stated. “We’ve had different layers of obligation this year unlike any other school year, so we know that’s had an impact, but the safety of our kids and teachers have been paramount.”

ACS officials are hoping that major touchstones can be reached with the added support of summer school for students.

“Overall countywide our main focus is literacy, because any deficits we are seeing among students is in literacy,” Cindy Brigman explained. “I think all of the administration and teachers, we’re all on the same page and we’re going to drill down and look to see what we can provide as a district to improve literacy across the board among the student population.”

Entering into the two sessions this summer, students and parents may note additional differences, virus protocols notwithstanding, with the nature by which the students will be participating.

“This year, we’re striving to be more intentional with our lesson plans and focused on areas of support. We’re going to use the end-of-year benchmarks and grading practices going in as a springboard into our summer program to see if a student is falling behind in literacy or math, and we’re going to focus on the individual child,” Cindy Brigman noted. “Hopefully, we’re going to have the opportunity to have those smaller groups, more individualized learning, so we can close some gaps and prevent what we always call the ‘summer slide,’ academically that comes with the break in school. These are some of the students who have lost a little bit this year, so we are entering into this intentionally giving them what they need so that in August when they get there, some of those gaps will be filled and they’ll be ready to go with their cohorts and classes.”

ACS is currently in the process of determining the number of educators who will be participating in the summer school sessions, according to ACS Director of Human Resources Dennis Brown, who added that the final total will be solidified in the coming days prior to the ending of the spring semester.

“Several weeks ago we distributed a general interest survey to our teachers on which sessions they would be interested in participating, and if so, what subject areas they would be interested in teaching. We have received about 35 responses thus far of interested teachers, and we’re currently nailing that down because we’ve been waiting on the criteria and how we’ll be putting the program together. We released a survey earlier this week that we’ll be reviewing which will be an actual application to teach in summer sessions, and we’ll have a better handle on that,” Brown explained. “A lot of that will also be student-driven, based on how many teachers we will need compared to the number of students enrolled in the sessions and grade levels.”

Summer school sessions are available for all students and families interested in the offering, and the district desires that many prioritized students identified with higher levels of academic need will take advantage of the program. For more information or questions regarding this year’s summer school plans, parents can reach out to their local school, click to www.averyschools.net or call Avery Central Services at (828) 733-6006.

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