Local News

Successful school year validated TC's choice to bring students back to classroom

With the deep-rooted belief than in-class learning was best for Triton Central’s students, Northwestern Consolidated Schools board opted not to offer virtual learning at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

One year later, superintendent Chris Hoke firmly believes it was the right decision.

“We had discussions about do we come back in person or try to do the virtual,” explained Hoke. “Obviously, we did in-person on campus. We believe philosophically that is what’s best for kids academically, socially and emotionally. And if you wanted that virtual piece, there were options out there.”

Virtual learning was available for those students diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined via contact tracing. Otherwise, all three TC buildings were filled with students for the entire 2020-21 school year.

“We’ve talked about we are a business. We offer a product and that product is an educational experience,” continued Hoke. “Our product we offer is rooted in the experience here on campus. You can’t be here unless you are here. From an academic standpoint, we knew that is sound structurally. We came to a fairly quick decision in the summer leading into August that we were going to focus our time and energy on what we have to do to get back here in person safely, reliably and deliver the product we know we’re good at.”

In a smaller school system like Triton Central, offering both in-person learning and virtual learning simultaneously was too much to ask of its teaching staff.

“I believe and the team believes, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that looking back, if we had tried to two track that our staff would have been worn out,” said Hoke. “It would have essentially doubled their work load. I didn’t think that was fair. I knew we would end up doing both things not very well.”

Hoke was reluctant to operate virtually in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic exploded across the United States but there was no other option.

“We knew we could make the 1-to-1 e-Learning stuff we do for inclement weather work in the short term,” he said. “We knew even back then this isn’t a long term solution. This isn’t best for kids in the long term.”

The transition to virtual learning went smoothly for the school system, according to Hoke, but it learned quickly just how many students did not have internet access at home.

“It was less a transition but that’s not to say it wasn’t anything,” said Hoke. “There was less ramp up there. The thing that became really evident is there are some real glaring deficiencies in the community with regard to connectivity. There were dark spots.

“We are 15-20 minutes from the heart of the state capitol yet there are areas that flat don’t have connectivity. I know the state is working hard to address that. To me, that is almost unimaginable in 2021 and 2022.”

Students found alternative ways to get internet access despite being banned from campus because of the pandemic.

“We had a lot of people doing homework from Starbucks or an aunt’s house or grandma’s house,” he said. “That summer going into the fall when we knew we were going to be back, we were game planning for what if we had to go out again.”

The campus now has one of the strongest internet signals in the area.

“We beefed up on campus,” said Hoke. “Some of the strongest internet signal around is by the flagpole in front of the high school. The local network here on campus is pretty good.”



Through early fall testing, data revealed TC students were still in good shape educationally despite virtual learning for the final two months of the 2019-2020 semester.

“There were differences between English and Math,” said Hoke. “They didn’t lose as much in English as they did in Math. There are a couple of ways to look at that.

“Outside of school, people don’t do math problems, but you do read. If they are on a device, kids are reading. They do that on their own away from school. Not many people on their own do math problems away from school. So our kids were getting some practice in reading on their own.”

While state leaders don’t want to admit the last two months of the school year are not about learning, Hoke says the impact of the pandemic was lessened by the time of the year.

“The last half of the spring semester in this state is so fixed on state assessments that there is not a tremendous amount of hard core instruction going on at that point and time anyway,” he said. “That is not what folks at the state level want to hear but the truth of the matter is after spring break, we’re testing and then getting ready for the end of the school year. So if you wanted to pick a time of the school year to put school out, honestly that is probably the best time you could pick to have the minimum impact educationally because all we’re doing is testing and getting done with the end of the school year.”

It is Hoke’s belief that the school system’s decision to operate in-person for the 2020-2021 school year was a good one based on the testing scores.

“We didn’t see as much loss in the pandemic because we were here,” he said. “That validates the decision we made from an academic standpoint and that doesn’t even touch all the social and emotional pieces.”

After a long 16-month experience with a pandemic, the school system’s teachers and staff were ready for a break.

“They were tired and wiped out. It was stressful,” said Hoke when asked about his teaching staff. “On one hand, they had their own personal health and the loved ones in their lives that they were around and were exposed to, and then they were worried about doing their job and doing it well. They were tired. We were all tired. They needed time away. They needed a break this summer. They did an unbelievable job but they were gassed. We were on fumes at the end.”

Hoke has already started seeing teachers on campus again preparing for the new school year that starts Aug. 3.

“I think there is some anxiety about how (the summer break) went so fast,” he said with a laugh. “They have been in and out all week getting rooms ready. When I talk to them, they are ready to go back. It’s time. And if they have their own children, they are ready for their kids to be back.”

As with all of the Shelby County school districts, masks will be optional to start the school year. Students will still be required to wear them on buses per federal mandate that runs through mid-September.

“I am excited to get back to something that closely resembles normal,” said Hoke. “We had a really good experience last year. We were really fortunate. The kids were great and the staff was unbelievable.”