Unsung Education Heroes: People working behind the scenes to keep schools running during COVID-19

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WASHINGTON, N.C. (WNCT) — Throughout the pandemic, 9 On Your Side has highlighted teachers and administrators who have worked tirelessly to educate students.

But what about the people working behind the scenes? We’ve all heard the saying ‘it takes a village.’ That is certainly true when it comes to schools.

There are several unsung heroes who are making all the difference during the pandemic.

“We have definitely come together and worked together really hard,” said Anna Hodges, a counselor at P.S. Jones Middle School. “Harder than we ever have to make sure we’re really addressing the students’ needs.”

There are numerous people working behind the scenes at Beaufort County Schools to keep things afloat amid the pandemic. Hodges is one of those people.

“I definitely wear many hats,” she said. “People say ‘what is your job? What do you do?’ And sometimes it’s like ‘I don’t really know. I do lots of things.'”

Part of Hodges’ role is making sure students have what they need to succeed.

“We realized the only reason they’re not coming to school is because they don’t have clothes or they don’t have school supplies,” she said. “So definitely removing those barriers and saying OK, we’ve got you the clothes. Now, let’s get you on a bus and we can bring you to school.”

One of those necessities is food.

“It’s important for the kids to get healthy meals and that way they can learn better and focus more and just be happy children,” said Penny Coward, who is the Child Nutrition Manager at John Small Elementary.

Coward and her team work in the cafeteria at the elementary school.

“We individually wrap everything to go to the kids,” she said. “We prepare for lunch and we cook everything up. Everything goes out to the children in to-go bags or to-go trays and they take it to the classroom and eat.”

Coward said the extra work is worth it to see the kids’ smiling faces.

“It touches our hearts,” she said. “We do it all for the children.”

You’ll find Daniel Roper walking through the halls of John Cotten Tayloe with a big broom.

“The classrooms have to be thoroughly cleaned now,” said Roper. “Touch points like the door handles, the telephone.”

His job as a custodian has become extra important.

“Safety, germs, sickness, we prevent that more,” he said.

Roper wears another hat, too. He’s also a bus driver.

“I make sure they’re in their assigned seats,” he said. “Make sure that they’re kind of apart from each other at least four to six feet.”

Roper said he feels more recognized now than ever before.

“I think that I’m being more appreciated,” he said. “People are more aware now. ‘Thank you, Mr. Daniel, for what you’re doing. Thank you for keeping our kids safe, healthy.'”

Cindy Edwards is the lead school nurse for Beaufort County Schools.

“I think we’ve been more visible this year than ever before,” she said. “We tended to go behind the scenes.”

Schools nurses have taken on a new role because of the pandemic.

“A lot of our job is nursing assessment,” she said. “Does this child have the symptoms of COVID or is it something totally different? So we’ve been stretched a little thin.”

Edwards thinks her job as lead school nurse will be broader than ever next school year.

“Not only are we going to be doing things next year that we normally do, we’re also going to have to add contact tracing to that because it’s not going to go away,” she said.

Laurel Miller is also taking on more than she ever imagined.

“One of the big things that we did as social workers that we were not trained to do and we never thought that we would have to do this, but we were tech support,” she said. “We were going out to houses and showing folks how to use iPads and Chromebooks.”

Miller said she doesn’t mind the extra work.

“I want to help families, and I want to help support people whenever they’re going through a rough time or when they’re struggling with things,” said the social worker.

If the pandemic has taught these educators anything, it’s how to be flexible.

“We had to learn how to make changes and not complain about what is not happening, how I used to do things,” said Marielly Alicea, a teaching assistant at John Cotten Tayloe. “Now, things are just different, and we have to jump on and just go with the flow.”

Many people make up a school. These educators said it takes everyone working together to be successful.

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