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'Crisis mode' Persevering, leading in uncharted territory

by From Staff Reports | May 16, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Stephanie Nehus, superintendent of Hot Springs School District. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, rapid action in school districts nationwide was required, but as to what that action should be no one had a perfect solution for such an unprecedented occurrence. Hot Springs School District Superintendent Stephanie Nehus said out of all experiences of crises she has encountered in her 23 years of education, none had prepared her for the year her schools' doors would close to students, leaving them isolated at home.

"Every experience gives you some knowledge and some understanding to help you through the next crisis-type of moment, but I can't say there was anything prior that would have prepared for an entire year of transition," Nehus said. "Looking back, I would have never dreamed -- never dreamed -- that we wouldn't have been able to open our school doors to students nonstop. I would have never dreamed we would have been in that situation where you are isolated at home."

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The future was uncertain, but as the more than 3,600 students and 440 staff members in Hot Springs School District lived out two more days of "normal," they would all leave for spring break that Friday afternoon and, unbeknown to them, not return for the remainder of the school year.

"When the pandemic began, I think not only here in Hot Springs School District, but I think across our state and our nation we went into crisis mode," Nehus said. "Our first points were to ensure that our students were safe, that our students had access to learning and that our students were fed."

HSSD shifted into this "crisis mode" in about a week's time.

"I look back and you just kind of have to giggle about it, but you know when we originally shifted we didn't think it was going to be as long as it was," Nehus said. "Originally, it was just we're going to get through spring break, and then the plan was to return after spring break, so we had a few weeks to kind of sort through those pieces, and then it was we're not coming back to school."

In the midst of the unknown, one thing HSSD did know is they had to move forward, sticking to their three focal points for students: safety, learning and feeding.

To keep students safe after being sent home, Nehus said the district worked to get them information about how to stay safe during the pandemic. However, as a believer that on-site instruction "is the best method for learning," she said HSSD simultaneously worked to transform their campuses into a safe place to bring their students back sooner rather than later.

"We provided face masks for every child and staff member, we put Plexiglas divider shields on every student's desk, we had sanitizer for every classroom, we had a cleaning schedule that was much different from before to ensure that touch-points were cleaned on a regular basis," she said. "We worked to social distance as much as we possibly could, but we were very transparent all along that it was not going to be possible for kids to be 6 feet apart in the classrooms. ... I feel like we tried to cover every facet."

Once the safety precautions were put in place, HSSD provided three options to parents for their students to resume school in August 2020: completely on-site, completely virtual, or blended with two days spent on-site and three days spent virtual per week.

"We prepared for multiple options, because we knew families might be leery and uncomfortable," Nehus said, adding that at the end of the first nine weeks the blended option was eliminated due to overwhelmed teachers.

With this "new normal" of learning, she said Resort TV Cable partnered with them to help all students have internet access for their virtual learning. Starting this partnership at the end of March, Nehus said about 99% of families in the district now have internet access.

"They either have it on their own, or we are providing it for them," she said. "And then along the way, the state jumped in and we also have mobile hot spots that we're able to give to families, because there were some families who denied the offer for the internet at their homes, but we have other ways we can get students the internet that they need to be able to be successful virtually."

The feeding aspect of students now isolated at home when some eat primarily through their school was also an initial primary concern. Another community partner, HSSD's food service management company Chartwells, jumped into action with them.

"We got food out very quickly," Nehus said. "We were able to provide a breakfast and a lunch for every day, and that actually I'm proud to say continued all the way through, even to the point where we -- which we haven't done in the past but we did this year -- we did bulk feeding over Christmas break (and) we did bulk feeding over spring break, so I'm thankful for the pandemic for that piece because now we know we can even do more than what we did in the past."

As the pandemic loosens and more COVID-19 vaccines are administered, about 85% of the students in HSSD are now back in their classrooms learning.

Looking back over the whirlwind of an unprecedented year, Nehus said in hindsight she believes consistent communication with parents, students, faculty and staff is what held the greatest payoff in HSSD's success navigating through the pandemic.

"Being transparent of this is what it's going to look like, and not holding back or trying to sugar coat anything, but here is where we are, we understand where you are, this is what we can offer you, and this is what we promise to you," she said.

"Would we do anything differently? You know, I don't know that we would. I feel like we jumped in in a time of uncertainty, and we paved our way, and we stuck to that. Being consistent, planning with intention, and then again speaking of just the entire staff here, we implemented with fidelity all those plans, and I truly believe that's how we've had such a successful school year."

Nehus has been the HSSD superintendent for four years, but has held a career in education for 23 years. Graduating from Lakeside, she received her Bachelor and Master of Science in Education and Mathematics from Henderson State University, and her Doctor of Education in Education Administration and Supervision from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"Even undergraduate and graduate studies, they don't prepare you (for something like a pandemic)," she said. "They prepare you in theory, but they don't prepare you for reality, and I think that's just the nature of the world that we're in. You can't learn enough to really know how it's going to play out when you're in the field."

The varied experiences and observance of diverse leadership styles she has encountered in her career is what helped Nehus to problem-solve, which is what she "ultimately needed most" in getting through the pandemic.

"I am so proud and honored to be able to lead the Hot Springs School District," she said. "I'm surrounded by amazing staff members; administrators, teachers, support staff; I'm surrounded by amazing students who want to learn and love one another and accept all, we truly are a district for everyone, and I couldn't be more proud of that. And I think coming through a pandemic, that shines even more. How much everyone reaches out just to help each other, to support each other, to provide for one another when any needs arose."

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