PORTSMOUTH — Jason Burton has been a coach, a teacher, an assistant principal and now a principal at Northwest High School. He’s seen just about all there is to see – and none of it came close to preparing him for a pandemic.
“About this time last year, we went to St. Patrick’s Day weekend and then, all of a sudden, you don’t go back to school,” he recalled. “We weren’t ready for it. Nobody was.”
The challenges began almost immediately. Even alerting the students that they would not be physically returning to school was difficult. Burton pointed out that there are parts of the Northwest district where internet access, cellphone service and even landline phone service is unreliable. The school’s solution to this problem? Compassion.
Teachers went above and beyond to try and look after these students. They even went so far as to record lessons, save them to flash drives and personally deliver them to families without internet access. It’s an example of their willingness to adapt and improvise. It’s also an example of what has become a guiding principle for the school: “We’re all in this together, so just be kind to one another.” It’s something that is expected out of both students and staff, and it stems from an understanding that the last year has been difficult for everyone.
Along with that commitment to kindness comes an emphasis on staying positive and taking steps to keep one another safe. Specifically, wearing masks.
“We wear our masks here in the building. Everyone wears their mask, and we wear it right,” Burton said. In reference to people who wear their mask beneath their nose, he added: “The running joke is, ‘Don’t wear it Walmartian-style.’”
As far as Burton is concerned, wearing a mask during a pandemic is just about being kind to those around you. They’ve not had any issues with students or staff complying, though they’ve had to stress their masking expectations to the public at sporting events on a few occasions.
Demonstrating kindness is especially important considering the toll the pandemic has had on mental health. Burton lost his grandmother during the pandemic, and several staff members have been unable to visit family members in the hospital. Typically, they can rely on one another for comfort and support, but the coronavirus has made that much more challenging. It’s also been hard on students who spent most of the last year at home, unable to get out and do anything.
“Even some of your straight-A kids, they’re miserable in isolation,” Burton said.
He and his staff worry about their students, even when they aren’t in school. That’s why they are strict about following guidelines so extracurriculars can continue. That’s why the custodial team thoroughly cleans and disinfects the school every night. And that’s why some of the teachers even spend their free-time preparing food at the Rarden Community Center to make sure kids in their community aren’t going hungry at home.
“It’s been a really unique thing to watch this community come together,” Burton said. “It comes down to relationships. The greater the relationship you have with the community, the greater the level of learning you’re going to have.”
That concern for his community was also a factor in Burton’s decision to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“For me, getting the vaccine is simple: it’s ‘lead by example,’” he said. “I come in contact with lots of families and people rely on me. If I’m going to be a leader in creating the safest environment I can for my staff and students, I’ve got to be the first one vaccinated.
“Everybody in this building took the vaccine,” he added. “It has made people relax a little bit. I don’t think anyone’s let their guard down, but they feel a little safer.”
That’s a welcome change for a team that’s working so hard to look after their students. The hope is that, as the vaccine becomes more available, it will bring us closer to the end of the pandemic. Until that happens, though, the team at Northwest has already has a solid strategy for persevering: Just be kind to one another.
The COVID-19 vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective, and more than 75 million doses have already been administered in the United States. For information about who is currently eligible to be vaccinated, visit somc.org. If you are eligible, you can schedule your vaccine by calling 740-356-CARE.