An Interview with Deputy Superintendent Matthew Eberhardt
Virtual classroom. Distance learning. Online school. Homeschooling. Whatever you called the 2020/2021 school year environment, most parents, students and educators are relieved to be done with it and to be back in a brick-and-mortar classroom.
“Everyone wants a fast return to normal,” says Dr. Matthew Eberhardt, deputy superintendent of Fredericksburg City Public Schools.
But the 2021/2022 school year is far from normal. Teachers and students are trying to catch up on unfinished learning and learn new material at what many would consider a dizzying pace. Schools still must follow CDC guidelines, which include mask-wearing inside school buildings, three feet of social distancing, and following other protocols for things like disinfecting and quarantining exposed staff and students.
Keeping everyone on task and following the rules is a challenging job that requires constant attention, but the Deputy Superintendent says we should remain positive.
“Certainly, students don’t all follow the protocols, and we know our job as adults is to help teach them what is expected,” says Eberhardt. “But honestly children are terrific; we should stay focused on that.”
While things are not back to pre-COVID normal yet, the dramatic decrease in positive cases in the school district helps Eberhardt stay upbeat. In August, Fredericksburg City schools were reporting around 100 positive cases a week. Now, there are less than 10 a week.
“We feel that parents have been great partners with us in helping keep those numbers down and trusting us as we work together,” says Eberhardt.
To keep parents in the know about the current COVID situation in their child’s school, notifications are sent every time a positive case pops up. Schools have also installed a COVID dashboard onto their website which is constantly being updated with current stats.
Parents are still voicing their concerns, but fortunately, their worries have been greatly eased. “We think that vaccination availability and our demonstrated success with COVID mitigations have reduced the numbers of parent concerns from what we heard last year.”
Lessons From 2020/2021
“Last year taught us how to be more creative and flexible, adjust more quickly, and communicate more,” says Eberhardt.
“This year, we have to be equally agile in order to try to address both interrupted and unfinished learning.”
Last year was a time of uncertainly and ever-changing guidelines that kept everyone on their toes. The schools, like the public, rarely had time to adjust to one change before another one came along.
“Not everyone liked all that uncertainty and constantly changing advice, but it did teach us to be flexible and creative,” says the Deputy Superintendent.
One example of how city schools demonstrated their ability to be creative and flexible last year was in how students took their lunch. Instead of everyone crowding together in the cafeteria, some ate on blankets picnic-style outside, some in their classrooms, while others ate in the cafeteria.
Eberhardt emphasizes the need for creative problem solving and not just practical solutions going forward as they continue to navigate a still-fluid situation. He says students’ involvement is the key.
“Children are really good at it which means we need to rely on getting them involved.”
With new variants cropping up and cases on the rise in different parts of the country, the public school system isn’t out of the woods yet. Eberhardt and the FCPS system acknowledge the “great pressure” their teachers and students are under as they try to catch up on unfinished learning while still forging ahead in an atmosphere that remains under stress.
“There seems to be more needs for social, emotional, and academic support across the board,” he says. “Our division wants to do what we can to reduce those stressors to keep people employed and students in school.”
Keeping Their Eyes on the Prize
Repairing the unprecedented impact of COVID will take a lot of time and some trial-and-error. Mostly it will require thoughtful leadership who value the children in their community.
“Children are our greatest gifts and our futures. Our FCPS employees are privileged in our noble profession to be able to work with students,” says Eberhardt. “We need to do whatever it takes to stay focused on each person, everyone’s needs, and every single success we can realize.”
A brief note to our readers: As we are all well-aware by now, the situation surrounding COVID-19 is a fluid one. When we spoke with the Deputy Superintendent, he shared with us his perspective based on the past and the present at the time of our conversation. Circumstances in terms of positive cases and protocols maybe have changed from the time the interview took place to when this story was published.