“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” is how Nauset Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Conrad might sum up the past few months in the school system that has been profoundly changed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“With change comes change. Do not be afraid of it,” are words that Conrad frequently speaks to his staff.
Conrad gave the keynote speech during the Orleans Chamber of Commerce’s 31st annual meeting held virtually on Nov. 17. The theme of the meeting was “Honoring Perseverance.”
He began his 20-minute speech by looking back to mid-March, when the pandemic took off and pressure was on to close the schools. He reflected that after the school system had operated for 75 years basically the same way, now it would switch to remote learning for the over 2,800 students in the district. And it was during a “stressful, amazing time” that the school system recalibrated and was able to deliver an online program in one week.
Conrad, who has worked in education for over 40 years, was named superintendent in 2015. Prior to that, he served as principal at Nauset Regional High School for 21 years. During his five years at the helm of the school system, he has become known for opening the schools’ gyms to families on weekends, partnering with MIT for summer science projects and other innovations.
It was only after the pandemic hit and students began studying from home that Conrad connected public schools and child care, he said. He has come to understand the partnership. “We must do everything we can, of course, to keep our students safe but to keep our students in school,” he said.
At the elementary level, 90 percent of the district’s students come in every day. The middle and high schools are open on a hybrid model.
Conrad and his staff have worked out protocols for cleaning and disinfecting the schools against the virus. The transportation system created another challenge when the state reduced bus capacity by 65 percent. That means that a bus that could carry 70 students would now carry only 22, and “it wasn’t going to work.” Conrad surveyed parents and many are now dropping off and picking up their children. “The communication between mom and dad and their children is remarkably higher,” he said. There have been “good, positive results.”
New norms have been established in the schools, too. For example, students are “masters of hand washing” and wash their hands six to eight times a day. There is also no problem with mask wearing in grades pre-K to 12.
“We have pulled it off, and it’s like we’ve been doing it for years at this point,” Conrad said.
Last summer each school district had to prepare three learning plans: in school, remote and hybrid. A task force worked five days a week to produce the documents so the state would approve reopening the schools.
Conrad called his kitchen workers “superstars.” During the shutdown they continued to produce 8,000 breakfasts and lunches per week that were then picked up. The kitchen workers also ran a free fruit program and served hot meals to three of four local councils on aging. “They never once complained,” he said.
A car parade was organized to celebrate the kitchen workers. “It was moving to see how many of them were crying because for the first time in their careers they were the superstars,” Conrad said.
Visitors are no longer allowed in the school buildings in an effort to keep everyone, ages 5 through over 60, safe. Three separate incidents of coronavirus have been reported in three separate buildings, but protocols worked to contain the cases from spreading.
Conrad recalled that he visited a third grade class when school opened in the fall. “Those students who have come back to school are excited,” he said. One third grader told him she planned to take lemons and make lemonade.
Going forward, Conrad speculated on what changes will stay. If everyone remains positive, “we have only made our school district stronger,” he said.
He noted that of the 351 school districts in the state, the Nauset Regional system ranked 18th on the list of most desirable districts to work. He credited the retention of staff and community support with making the system strong.
“Together, we can do great things.”