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Deep roots

Support through a pandemic in Jessieville by Felisha Butler | May 16, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Melissa Speers, superintendent of Jessieville School District. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, each aspect of everyone's lives shifted. It was an event in history that nobody could have foreseen.

Schools around the world had to spring into action to keep their students safe and healthy while ensuring they continued to receive a good education. Jessieville Superintendent Melissa Speers' first action was to call a meeting of administrators, transportation directors, food service directors, nurses and others.

"We find out in a press conference that the governor is giving -- superintendents had zero heads up," Speers said. "We find out that schools are closed and they're shut down until after spring break or whatever that time frame was. At that point and as superintendent, I had to think about how we were still going to educate these children. How are we going to do that? What are we going to do? ... How are we going to get the learning in the kid's hands? Are we still going to continue to serve food? How are we going to deliver that food? We know what teachers are going to be doing. We know what administrators are going to be doing. We have other people who depend on their salary. How are they going to help? We had that one first initial meeting to say, 'OK, we're going to get through this first week and here's what we're going to do."

Communication was key during the pandemic -- brainstorming and working together to problem-solve.

"We continued to do that through the summer in preparation for how we were going to start school and how that was going to look like that," she said. "There were a lot of things that changed. There were a lot of things that we would not find out until the people of Arkansas found out at this 1:30 (p.m.) press conferences. We had everything ready to start. We were going to start school and we find out we can't start for an extra week. So everything had to shift. There were a lot of things that had to happen on the fly -- at a moment's notice. We had to be ready to change and modify. I think that's made us stronger for that."

Speers explained that the Arkansas Association of Education Adminstators began administering weekly Zoom calls for superintendents and she also would reach out to other superintendents in Garland County.

"We were brainstorming with each other," she said. "We were problem-solving together. They were helping keep us up to date on information. There was so much information coming out from all different areas. Now, it's routine for us but when this first started for us last March, this was brand-new. One of the superintendents, she said, 'I feel like we're drinking from a fire hose because of all of this information.' Those weekly Zooms really helped -- helped keep us focused, helped keep us on track, helped keep us brainstorming. I've always reached out to other superintendents for advice, brainstorming or for 'I need this resource. Have you got it or where can I find it?' We have a great group of superintendents in Garland County that have helped me tremendously."

Since the start, Jessieville School District has not reported any major outbreaks of the virus. Crystal Ridge Distillery in Hot Springs began to produce hand sanitizer which the district purchased early on and many protocols were implemented to maintain a healthy environment.

"Every single classroom, my board room, the library -- have spray bottles of that sanitizer," Speers said. "One of our protocols was every teacher was meeting their students at the door every single time those kids came in the door and they were sanitizing hands. They were sanitizing desks between classes if they were in middle school or high school and changed classes. We did a lot of sanitizing. Buses were sanitized twice a day. We made sure we were wearing face masks -- our teachers, our students. We purchased clear desk shields. ... We tried to distance and put at least 6 feet of distance between students in our classrooms, but we weren't able to do that in every classroom. ... The sanitizing of the hands and continuing for them to wear their mask -- I think that helped us combat the virus."

Speers noticed that the quick transition from normal everyday life to a strict routine was a bit difficult on students and faculty alike, but there was no major pushback from anyone -- including the community.

"Our staff have been great about encouraging each other and helping each other and lifting each other up," Speers said. "That's one of the things we've tried to do is keep an eye on the staff as far as how are they doing emotionally (and) how are they doing physically. What can we do to help? We've tried to encourage each other and they've done a great job of that, of helping each other out and reaching out and brainstorming together. ... I think it's just the support among the staff, the support from the administrators of the staff and the community as well."

As of now, JSD is continuing to social distance and wear face masks indoors.

"If we're at a baseball game or at a track meet, we're asking people to wear their masks until they get in and sit down," Speers said. "Then they can take them off. The teachers are still at the door meeting students and sanitizing hands, sanitizing desks. We're carrying on with all of that."

In her position, Speers performs myriad responsibilities. Even when she's not on school grounds, being superintendent doesn't stop.

"I have to make sure I have people that are monitoring our sewer plant and that the sewer plant is operating correctly," she explained. "I have to make sure we have the textbooks and supplies that we need. I mean, it's the entire gamut of the district. Everything -- the buses are running on time. I have people under me who see to those day to day things but I have to make sure all the people are in the right places to make sure that everything is taken care of from the bills getting paid to keep the lights on so that we can have school today and we got our food orders in on time so we feed our kids. You're responsible for every bit of everything.

"For example ... I got a phone call last night around 6:30 (p.m.) and one of our students didn't make it home. As it all turned out, it was a misunderstanding. They were in church and had gone to church after school. It's those kinds of things, like, now I'm on the phone with my administrator -- let's trace back and see where the kid was. It can be anything and everything to do with school."

After entering the workforce and giving birth to her first child, Speers opted to become a stay-at-home mother for roughly nine years. Speers was given the opportunity to work part-time as the manager of the Jessieville sports arena before graduating from Henderson State University with a secondary math degree and being hired at the school district as a high school math teacher.

Speers received her administration certification and took the position as the principal at the middle school and a spot on the district administration. She has been superintendent for three years.

"I'm in my 23rd year so I feel being here and familiar with the staff and familiar with the community has helped each of the challenges," Speers said. "I think, too, that I care so deeply about this district and my roots are very deep here -- that makes the challenges a bit easier. If any good has come out of this, I think realizing how much support we have from our community. I think realizing the support we have in our state and being able to reach out to other districts and get their take or bounce an idea off. I think that's been phenomenal. It's been wonderful to be able to get advanced technology in the hands of our teachers and our students and be able to see that learning can look different than it has been and can still be effective. Those are some positives that have come out of this."

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