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The start of a school year unlike any other: Sept. Webster Parish School Board meeting

File Photo | Webster Parish School Board Office

The September Webster Parish School Board Meeting took place Monday evening, being the first meeting since the beginning of a school year which is unlike any that came before it. That, on top of the recent transition of Louisiana from Phase 2 to Phase 3 of re-opening left the School Board and Superintendent Johnny Rowland with plenty to address. 

Early in the meeting Rodney Talyor of Taylor & Sons presented the employee of the month award. The first to be given since the start of the shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The person chosen for the award was Melba Taylor, who went above and beyond to ensure that everyone was safe, even during her time off from working as Cafeteria Staff. “At the time we were in Phase 2, Taylor gave up her time off to come and help sanitize. She cleaned the building and helped in any way that she could, preparing the board room for the school board meetings and making sure we were at the correct distance. She thoroughly sprayed each day in the mornings and afternoons. She also made sure the bathrooms were disinfected and cleaned every hour. Hated to see her leave, and return to working her routine job with food services,” said Taylor, which was met with a round of applause. 

Robin Tucker, Personnel Director for the WPSB, announced during her report the passing of someone who had a long career in the Webster parish School system. 

“I did want to take liberty if it was possible just to announce and make sure we were all aware that former assistant superintendent Ronnie Brown passed away this weekend. He served his entire adult professional career in the Webster Parish School System, starting from teacher/coach, all the way up to Assistant Superintendent, and I just felt it was important that we publicly recognize that,” said Tucker.

Ursula Hulaby, Community Liaison, made known a recent donation from Walmart to the SchoolBoard, including many pallets of water to distribute throughout the Webster Parish schools.

“We wanted to make sure that all of our students had water, since all the water fountains are cut off or not accessible to our kids, so we reached out to Walmart to see how they could help us get some water into all of our schools,” said Hulaby. 

“I didn’t even realize, but they were willing to donate pallets of water for us. Walmart donated a number of pallets, and each pallet had 48 cases on it, so we really appreciated that. We have a really good relationship with Walmart, so they helped us supply our schools with water.”

Superintendent Johnny Rowland took the time during his report to speak more candidly to those present about the realities of handling the school system during a year such as this. 

The 2020 calendar year is one I’m sure all of us in this room will forever remember. No matter what seat we sit in, what our position in society is, when we think of 2020 we will forever remember,” said Rowland.

“You can imagine the conversations that I have had with people, and you have to humbly and respectfully listen, because each one of them is speaking from deep down in their heart. They’re sincere and concerned.”

“I have heard from people that told me, ‘We need to get these kids back in school right now, they need us.” “ Yes they do need us, yes they do, dig time.”

“I have heard from people that have said, ‘what in the world are you thinking? don’t you know what’s going on?’ I’ve heard from people in the middle,” said Rowland, “but I just want to state publicly to everyone here and to everyone who may be listening, that every word that has been spoken to me or any member of our staff has been listened to with patience, love, respect, and care. Because everyone has their own personal feelings associated with this thing. And I think at the end of the day, we all want what is best for our kids, as well as our colleagues. What goes along with that is you have to make difficult decisions. I’m well aware that there are folks who are not pleased, but I can assure you all the members of our staff, our principals, our teachers, and all employees are all working really really hard to get us to where we need to be.”

Looking at the silver lining, Superintendent Rowland also spoke of how a side effect of the pandemic has been the increased push to get education online and making students and staff more familiar with the technology that may not have come so soon otherwise. 

“We’re at a place now in Webster Parish, that if this pandemic were to not have happened, i think it’s safe to say it would have taken us years to get here. Why do I say that? Look at where we are now. Every student in Webster Parish has a chromebook. Not everyone has internet, we know that, but our guys are really working towards making that situation better,” said Rowland.

“We would have never been able to do that in the short term without the funding that we received. Not that I wished this thing on anybody, I wish it would never have happened, but since it did, we got to this place where we’re now offering virtual instruction in Webster parish, which I didn’t know if I would see it during my time.”

“Personally, I’ve been in more google meetings then I’ve ever dreamed on that I’d ever be one in my life, just in the last few months, and we’ve seen that that is an effective tool to reach out to people and meet people, and keep them in their schools, their jobs, wherever they need to be,” said Rowland.

He also spoke to the fact that Webster Parish students now have a 100% virtual alternative to school, something he didn’t think he would see for quite some time. 

“We have a real opportunity here to have a credible fantastic alternative to foks other than the brick and mortar. Personally I love the brick and mortar, that’s what I know.

We want to have the opportunity to say, when someone comes up to us and considers the homeschool route, this may work for you,” said Rowland.

“If we have our name attached to it, we want to offer a viable, legitimate, virtual alternative, while continuing to offer the very best at school brick and mortar education that we can to our kids.”

When speaking to the changes that occurred in Phase 3, the only notable ones were that of maximum occupancy size going up from 25 to 50 students and busses being able to hold students at 75% maximum capacity. All safety guidelines, regulations, and practices will continue to be followed, such as students and staff having to wear masks, social distancing, and repeated sanitization of high touch areas. 

“There are still a lot of unknowns out there. We are in Phase 3 now, and we are progressively working towards getting into a more structured normal school setting.”

We will re-evaluate in a few weeks and see where we are, as far as getting back to the 5 days a week,” said Rowland.

Lastly, Rowland expressed his appreciation towards the school Board, as well as all Webster parish school systems staff for their hard work throughout this pandemic to help open schools back up safely. 

“I just felt led to say to yall as a board, let you know how much I appreciate each and everyone of you. You’ve been so supportive,” said Rowland. “We’re very blessed here, I say it all the time. I appreciate the hard work that our supervisory staff has done, Mr. Washington, and everyone in this office. Then to our principals and administrative teams, we;ve had a very successful start to this school year, and I attribute it to the hours and hours and hours of planning that went into the starting of this school year.”

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