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Restricted graduations recall upended ceremonies of 1993

As might have been expected, some seniors were disappointed that their graduation ceremony did not go as they had hoped. The venue was not what had been planned, and many of their relatives were not able to be there to see them get their diplomas.

But this is not only true of Pitt County Schools graduations during the pandemic. A similar story played out 27 years ago this week as a sudden storm upended high school commencement ceremonies throughout eastern North Carolina.

Dressed in her cap and gown, Jenny Moore was on the football field at J.H. Rose High School with fellow members of the Class of 1993 when sharp lightening and strong winds sent graduates and guests in search of shelter.

Two years after that storm, Rose and D.H. Conley High schools moved their graduations into ECU’s Minges Coliseum. Pitt County Schools ceremonies have remained in the arena for two decades, until a pandemic and social distancing requirements brought them back outside this spring.

“It happened so quickly,” Jenny, whose married name is Porter, said, recalling the storm of June 4, 1993. “I just remember we just all started running. There was a fence around the outside that people were going to try to jump over because there was nowhere else to go.”

Students were rushed into the school while some parents dashed toward their cars. Thinking that the event had been canceled, some families, including Jenny’s, headed for home. Meanwhile, those remaining were told to line up in the gym, where the school made its best effort to salvage what was left of the ceremony.

“I think I found a pay phone after the graduation and called and told them what had happened,” Jenny said. “It was very upsetting at the time.”

She went on to graduate from Meredith College on a gorgeous, cloudless day. In the years since, she has given little thought to that chaotic Friday night until a different kind of storm threatened her daughter’s graduation.

“I just wanted so much for her to have a physical graduation,” Porter said, “just to recognize them and all they’ve been through.”

The coronavirus pandemic, which closed North Carolina’s public schools in March, has canceled some graduation ceremonies across the state and has altered others to fit guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. The changes in ceremonies have given some members of the Class of 1993 an occasion to revisit emotions they had more than a quarter century ago.

April Wood Anderson is hoping that rain holds off this morning so that her daughter, Rachel, can have the high school graduation ceremony that her mother never had. Rachel is among about 400 D.H. Conley graduates scheduled to receive their diplomas in two ceremonies at the school football field to allow for social distancing.

In June 1993, April was in a class of more than 300 students at Smithfield Selma High School who were forced to flee the football field due to an approaching storm. Students reassembled in the school gym without their parents, April recalled, and then they were sent to their homeroom classes to pick up their diplomas.

“There was no announcing your name, people clapping. You just got your diploma and you went home and that was it,” she said. “I’m very sentimental. It made me sad that we didn’t have that moment.”

When Pitt County Schools surveyed parents of seniors about what kind of ceremony they thought would be appropriate considering restrictions related to COVID-19, Anderson shared her story.

“I survived and went on to college and had other graduations,” Anderson, a physician’s assistant, wrote. “But I remember to this day there was no closure.”

As Brian Fields watched his oldest son, Tanner, receive his diploma from Rose on Wednesday, he could not help but to think back on the fact that this was where he should have graduated.

“I was kind of glad to see it there on the football field,” Fields said. “A part of me kind of wanted it to be on that field where I was going to be, getting to see him go through it. Sitting up there in the stands today brought back a lot of those memories.”

For Fields, the memories are not especially troublesome, mainly because his parents also ended up in the gymnasium, where they were able to watch him graduate. He said that while the Class of 1993 can relate to this year’s seniors on one level, he believes the Class of 2020 has had it much harder.

“I think the difference between this year and my year is we were still going to school; life was going on as usual,” Fields said. “Ours was a one-night disruption, theirs was (nearly) three months.”

Graduation is the one rite of passage high school seniors have been able to keep in a spring in which school, sports and prom have not been able to take place, he said.

Porter agrees. Her daughter, Sarah, was co-editor of Rampant Lines, Rose’s student newspaper, which ceased printing due to coronavirus. (Sarah and her fellow student journalists decided to continue their efforts online, posting videos and podcasts on social media during the pandemic.)

“I had a what you would call a normal senior year where she has not,” Porter said.

Still, Porter has tried to remain positive, reminding her daughter that the disappointment does not have to define her.

Sarah said those conversations have helped her to keep this in perspective.

“It’s been nice to have a mom to understand what it’s like since her graduation was a bit different, too,” she said. “It’s been nice for us to have each other through this time.”

In the same way, Anderson and her daughter have acknowledged their shared sorrow. Anderson’s parents, who did not get to see their daughter graduate from high school, are having to watch online today as their oldest grandchild receives her diploma.

“Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned and sometimes it’s disappointing,” Anderson said. “When they can learn to deal with disappointment and move on, that’s a lesson in and of itself. It’s a hard lesson to learn at any time in life.”

Fields thinks that, in time, members of the Class of 2020 will be able to look back on their graduation without thinking of what they missed. A classmate recently shared a video that captured the chaos of the 1993 ceremony, which Fields found to be more surreal than sad.

“I think they’ll be like us,” he said. “This is something they’ll always be able to tell their kids and grandkids that ‘Because of the coronavirus, this was how we had to graduate.’ They’ll have pictures of their masks. They’ll probably laugh about it in 20 years.”

District applying for grant to 'recruit, retain, reward' school leaders


In a continued effort to “recruit, retain and reward” the best teachers and leaders, Pitt County Schools is applying for a $11.3 million grant.

During a recent Board of Education workshop via Zoom, Thomas Feller presented board members with key reasons for applying for the grant, offered through the U.S. Department of Education.

Feller, who is the director of professional learning and leadership development for the district, said the “Teacher and School Leader (TSL) Grant,” provides incentives for school leaders and those who provide support to teachers.

He said the new grant is similar to the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) Grant, a five-year $16 million grant that the district received in 2016, geared toward rewarding teachers.

Feller said the new grant basically replaces the TIF Grant, which is in its final year. It has provided incentives for teachers to take on additional responsibilities and leadership roles.

According to the Department of Education’s website, TIF was designed to use performance-based compensation in order to increase effective educators in high-needs schools.

The new grant supports Phase Two of the district’s “R3” (recruit, retain and reward) program, Feller said.

“The TSL Grant is aimed more at school leaders — principals, assistant principals, and other groups,” he said.

This grant, which would begin in this fall, is for 36 months and would require a match of funds.

“Unlike TIF, it requires a 33 percent match of district funds — about $1 for every $2 we ask for,” Feller said.

However, the match can be made with programs already in existence.

“We are not really having to find any new money,” he said. “The vast majority of what we are doing can count toward our match.”

Feller said the district wants to build and expand off the success of TIF.

The grant’s criteria, which include “high-needs” schools, will target 31 Pitt County schools. Criteria for which schools are chosen are determined by the Department of Education.

Feller said the grant focuses on educators not in a traditional teaching role.

“This includes instructional coaches, and what we are calling non-classroom personnel — such as school counselors, assistant principals, media — positions which did not meet the criteria for the first grant.”

Feller outlined three key initiatives for the grant.

The first is expanding “communities of practice.”

“COP is where teachers come together, research, and have interventions in the classroom to try and solve problems,” he said. “It will also be for assistant principals, so they could collaborate with other assistant principals across the district.”

The grant would allow for 40 non-classroom-based people, and 16 assistant principals to participate, each receiving $2,000 a year.

The second, and biggest, initiative is the creation of a districtwide cadre of specialized coaches — what Feller called a new “coaching pathway.”

He said instructional coaches have been proven to influence the quality of teaching in the classroom.

“We know from TIF, and from research in general, instructional coaching has a huge impact on how well teachers perform,” Feller said. “That trickles down to how well kids are learning.”

This would include developing three types of coaches: instructional coaches who would coach teachers on district-level initiatives, such as classroom management and lesson planning; lead multi-school content coaches who already are curriculum specialists; and multi-school coaches, who are advanced coaches with an area of expertise.

“We are projecting to have as many as 29 of them across the district,” Feller said.

Also part of this second initiative is support of assistant principals.

“We have two goals with assistant principals: how do we train and equip them to be really good assistant principals? And how can we prepare assistant principals to be principals down the road?” Feller said.

First-year assistant principals would be provided with a mentor, an experienced assistant principal. The mentor would receive a supplement.

“We also have a program implemented last year called The Academy, for assistant principals who are interested in becoming a principal,” Feller said. “We do a lot of high, intense support with them. Our first group graduated last year. Out of seven, four or five are in principalships now.

“We’d like to offer each of those in the academy with a principal mentor — not their current principal, but someone who can help them grow in other areas,” he said. Supplements would be given to principals mentoring the rising assistant principals.

The third initiative is preparing a districtwide professional learning plan, according to Feller.

“In our classrooms we have an expectation of what instruction looks like and we have ways to measure the effectiveness of that instruction,” he said. “The grant would allow us to measure the effectiveness of the professional learning we are doing across the district. How can we get a systemized way of delivering professional learning? How can we measure its impact? That would be a key component of the grant.”

Masks no longer a requirement for Pitt County employees

Pitt County officials have moved from requiring county employees to wear masks to recommending they wear them and practice social distancing.

The Pitt County Board of Commissioners voted 7-1 Thursday to change its masking policy three days after approving the original requirement and one day after voting down a similar request to end it.

The debate and vote at the start of the board’s Thursday budget workshop delayed a scheduled presentation by Pitt County Schools Superintendent Ethan Lenker by nearly one hour.

Democratic Commissioner Christopher Nunnally proposed the mask wearing requirement on Monday as part of a two-step approach to requiring all Pitt County residents to wear masks in public. It was adopted 6-3 with the three Republican commissioners voting no.

The second phase had County Manager Scott Elliott working with the 10 area municipalities to adopt the requirement so it would apply countywide.

Republican Commissioner Michael Fitzpatrick on Wednesday sought to reverse the requirement because county employees said they viewed it as a punishment and Greenville officials said the city wouldn’t adopt the policy.

Elliott said on Thursday he spoke with officials with nine of the county’s 10 municipalities about the policy.

“Basically, the indication was no on both accounts,” Elliott said. “They basically said no, they wouldn’t require their employees to mask,” and they didn’t think their elected boards would approve a countywide requirement.

Republican Commissioner Tom Coulson started Thursday’s debate by proposing an anonymous survey of employees to get their feedback.

“They told me they don’t like being treated like a child,” Coulson said, and they described it as “another COVID slap in the face.”

Republican Commissioner Lauren White said employees didn’t have time to talk to Elliott before Wednesday’s meeting.

“Wearing a mask is not a punishment. It protects people working around you and it makes Pitt County a safer place to work during the pandemic,” said Nunnally.

Democratic Commissioner Ann Floyd-Huggins proposed a substitute motion tweaking the policy’s language so wearing a mask would be a recommendation instead of a requirement.

Commissioner Mary Perkins-Williams said she was frustrated by the number of times board members kept making substitute motions to block other motions. Perkins-Williams said she supported Coulson’s motion to conduct a survey.

Coulson said he supported Floyd-Huggins’ motion because it did not “destroy the policy” but gives employees “good, common sense decisions in their areas.”

When the vote was taken on the motion to no longer require masks, Perkins-Williams cast the lone no vote.

Elliott, the county attorney and clerk to the board immediately removed their masks after the vote. The deputy county manager removed his mask later in the meeting.

As for the actual work on the budget, a majority of commissioners said they favored putting forth the fiscal year 2020-21 budget proposed by the county manager with no additions or changes. However, a vote on a motion to put the recommended budget before the public for comment failed 5-4.

Coulson voted against the motion because he said he didn’t think it was necessary. Fitzpatrick and White followed his lead. Nunnally and Democratic Commissioner Alex Albright voted against the motion because they wanted to consider requests to add two deputies, four social workers and a nurse practitioner into the budget.

After further discussion, the board agreed to hold an additional workshop at 9 a.m. Wednesday. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 7 p.m. June 16.

Elliott also said he would bring back information showing how adding the seven positions would change the budget, although he and Barnett presented their recommendation for generating revenue for the positions when Wednesday’s meeting started.

The county will need $451,858 to add the seven positions to the budget, Elliott said. Because of expected decreases in sales tax revenue and investment earnings, the county’s property tax collections is the only reliable source of revenue.

The commissioners would need to increase the proposed 67.97-cent property tax rate to 68.29 cents per $100 valuation in order to generate the required funding, Barnett said.

The 68.29-cent property tax rate would increase the taxes paid on a $165,200 home, the median home value in Pitt County, by $6 annually.

The 68.29-cent tax rate would generate about $1,128 in property taxes and the 67.97-cent tax rate would generate $1,122 from a home of that value.

There was little discussion about Pitt County Schools’ budget request.

Elliott recommended a nearly $42.5 million budget for the school system, a $591,891 increase over the current year’s appropriation.

The Pitt County Board of Education sought an increase of slightly more than $1.8 million to cover fixed cost increases such as state mandated increases in social security and employer retirement contributions, raises for teachers and principals and $528,269 to cover part of a 6 percent teacher pay supplement.

Lenker said the commissioners gave $250,000 to the school system last year to fund the supplement for half a year. The commissioners said the $250,000 was not designated for a specific expenditure.

Health Department resume clinical services

The Pitt County Health Department resumed clinical services on Thursday, a week after one of its health care providers received word she had tested positive for COVID-19.

Officials said Thursday that they resumed services after disinfecting the clinic and testing staff members to determine whether they were infected. All the tests came back negative.

The health care provider has been retested because of questions involving the timing of the original test, Public Health Director John Silvernail said. The results of those were pending Thursday afternoon. The worker remains in isolation.

Data released by the county on Thursday showed that 320 people have now tested positive for the virus locally since March 12, up three from Wednesday. A total of 26 positive results have been reported in the last seven days, the department reported.

Eight people tested on Friday were positive, four on Saturday were positive, eight on Monday and three on Tuesday were positive. One person each who tested on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday were positive. The numbers could change as more testing results are reported.

The county estimates that 244 of the 320 people who tested positive have recovered. Two people have died.

The total number of tests administered locally is not available. Statewide, more than 19,000 were administered on Thursday and 468,308 have been administered in total, with about 9 percent being positive.

North Carolina’s total number of positive cases on Thursday reached nearly 32,000, an increase of almost 1,200 additional cases since Wednesday, and 960 deaths overall.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

The pandemic has prompted the closure of many businesses in order to slow its spread. A state Senate committee on Thursday unanimously approved a bill to let gyms and fitness centers reopen indoors at 50 percent capacity, the Associated Press reported.

It is another effort by lawmakers to overturn restrictions imposted by Gov. Roy Cooper. Social distancing for those working out on equipment and for classes, as well as extensive cleaning, also would be mandated under the legislation.

“We can take appropriate steps and still be safe in local areas and be responsible,” Sen. Jim Perry, a Lenoir County Republican, said during the committee meeting.

Last week, the General Assembly approved legislation that would allow bars to reopen, although they would only operate outdoors. Cooper criticized the measure and has until this weekend to veto the measure or let it become law.