One year later: County, school officials, others reflect on handling the COVID-19 pandemic
It’s been just over a year since Charles City and New Kent County hunkered down due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. When the outbreak first occurred, several county and local leaders were in the beginning phases of how to approach everyday situations. The Chronicle circled around to individuals who were interviewed at in the beginning stages to receive an update on how the past year has impacted them, their department, and the localities as a whole.
Rodney Hathaway- County Administrator, New Kent
On Mar. 13, 2020, Hathaway declared a local state of emergency in preparation of the outbreak. Operating offices were modified, and continuous cleaning had taken place over that time with the grounds slowly reopening. Today, Hathaway credits his office staff and others for making the transition as smooth as possible.
“First of all, it’s been a total team effort to work through this pandemic,” he said during a Monday morning interview. “All of our departments have been challenged with thinking outside the box. I think we’re stronger because of that.”
Hathaway also said that some policy changes made because of the outbreak will probably stay around for the foreseeable future.
“We have implemented ways of accepting permits, payments, and communicating to the public as we have relied more on technology and found some efficiency with it,” Hathaway continued. “I feel that by us relying on technology, our meetings have been more accessible, and we are going to advertise them on our social media pages to get info out to the public. I don’t see them going away. I see them as stronger tools in the future.”
The county administrator thanked the public as he finished his interview with the slow transition back to life pre-pandemic.
“We have started processing cultural events once again, but they have to show us how they are complying with the Governor’s [Northam] executive order,” Hathaway said as he wrapped up the interview. “The public has been cooperative, and we appreciate their patience. As we move to the vaccination phase as that’s our focus, we are receiving support from volunteers who make our clinics successful.”
Michelle Johnson- County Administrator, Charles City
After receiving their first confirmed case on Mar. 18, 2020, Charles City County Administrator Michelle Johnson has been working to get ahead of the situation through calls and conducting business with the local health department. Today, those efforts have led to the county being one of the frontrunners when it comes to vaccination rates in the state of Virginia.
“At first, we were originally going to receive 250 vaccinations from Dr. Thomas Franck [Chickahominy Health District] and then he increased it to 500,” she said on how the process begin. “When they looked at our rate with 7,000 residents and with 300 at least contracting the virus, they gave us another 1,000.”
The process of receiving vaccines has led to more than 30 percent of the county receiving at least another full shot. But it was the behind the work scenes of pumping out information that Johnson credited.
“We got creative with communication, rolled up our sleeves and everybody pitched in even though it wasn’t their specific area,” Johnson commented, pointing to how various county departments and community members stepped in. “Social media as a safe-haven, our faith-based community, they all did their part.”
The county administrator added that there were hiccups along the way, especially technology-based issues.
“Going virtual for our meetings as a whole created more challenges for us,” she admitted. “Thankfully, people understood and have patience and we’re thankful for that. A lot of lessons have been learned for sure.
“Right now, we are still pushing for economic development, especially along the Route 106 corridor,” Johnson added as she wrapped up the interview. “That will be the county’s prime economic development area and we are working to get water and sewer there. I want to thank Del. Donald McEachin and his push for legislation as we have put in for several applications for that to happen and hope to hear something by the end of April.”
Brian Nichols- Superintendent, New Kent County Public Schools
Last year, New Kent Superintendent of Schools Brian Nichols was three-quarters away from completing his first year when the pandemic interfered with student education. But despite some hiccups along the way, Nichols commented that his staff and school employees have been phenomenal when assisting student learning and family needs in the community.
“We’ve made a lot of adjustments, especially when it comes to the world of technology,” Nichols said in a Wednesday morning interview. “We upgraded our internet services, devices, and community access points.
“We are a lot more poised now than when we started and we will see what the future holds when it comes to technology,” he added. “Going to technology was one of our biggest shifts and working around internet challenges was key.”
The New Kent superintendent continued his dialogue, praising the food services staff for providing over 300,000 meals over the last year. More importantly, Nichols said the pandemic provided him a brighter perspective when it came to New Kent County as a whole.
“The community has been big supporters and the ability to go out and connect with them whether it was with delivering meals or riding on bikes with staff of George Watkins Elementary School to deliver books to kids was special,” the superintendent said. “The county supervisors and administrator [Rodney Hathaway] have supported us by providing us CARES Act funding that assisted our initiative for technology.
“But a lot of people and other organizations have also backed our school system,” Nichols continued. “Daycare centers rallied to assist with our virtual starts, organizations have provided food and clothing for others, and parks and recreation has provided a place for children of our staff to learn virtually while they teach. There were always a million different examples on what makes New Kent County special but going through this pandemic emphasized it even more.”
As for the return-to-learn for the county, Nichols said that space in the schools continue to be at a premium, but that school employees and the students are adjusting to the conditions.
“I am so proud of the staff and faculty adhering to the policies,” he said. “The kids are incredible in following the rules because they have model examples from the staff and parents.
“As guidelines continue, we are staying flexible,” Nichols commented as he wrapped up the interview. “We are not perfect and we have made mistakes, but we are doing our best to keep everybody safe so that we can hopefully get back to being as normal as possible with the kids in the school. I am tired of being a virtual superintendent and loved seeing the students back in the classrooms.”
Dalphine Joppy- Superintendent, Charles City County Public Schools
Last year, former Charles City Superintendent of Schools David Gaston spoke about how the school planned to cease for at least a week prior to the governor’s announcement that schools would close for the remainder of the year. While that change was a sudden shift, current Charles City superintendent Dalphine Joppy inherited her new position three months later in the midst of the pandemic.
“For me, I had to learn how to connect with and get to know the school staff members and this organization,” she said in a Tuesday afternoon interview. “It was not hard because of the caliber of people that I am fortunate to work with.”
Joppy had nothing but high praise for her employees and students who continued to switch from different models of learning over the one-year time period.
“They say that true character is revealed during times of crisis,” she said, quoting a saying that she has heard on several occasions. “Well, the Charles City school family is made up of exceptional character.
“Our teachers and students had to learn to pivot from one teaching and learning method to the next,” Joppy continued. “We had great support from our ITRT (Instructional Technology Resource Teacher), but I was most impressed with our teachers who took time our to navigate and help each other.
“I can’t speak volumes of how our support groups have continued to help us,” she added. “Our school nutrition department has never missed a beat prepping meals even when we were locked down, our transportation department has been phenomenal transporting students and delivering meals, and our instructional assistants have went beyond the extra mile.”
Joppy wrapped up her comments by saying that despite funding from the CARES Act to assist with technology needs, it was the community and employees who were the real standouts.
“I am still impressed how employees and community organizations go the extra mile,” she said as she began to wrap up her comments. “It’s been a rough year on educators, but they do ‘heart’ work and I know they love their students.
“Right now, we are going to let our teachers to find their rhythm,” Joppy added as she wrapped up the interview. “While some school divisions have teachers that have classrooms that instruct both in-person and virtually, our teachers are doing both.
“We are getting support from our community organizations, especially the PTSA and PTO. They continue to support us safely and come up with creative ways to support our teachers and students.”
Joe McLaughlin Jr.- Sheriff, New Kent County
One of the biggest concerns during the pandemic was about community safety. New Kent County Sheriff Joe McLaughlin Jr. said while crime in general has taken a downward trend, calls for service and certain type of crimes have gone up in the last year.
“From Mar. 1, 2020 to Mar. 29, 2021, our arrests have gone down somewhat, but that is based on individuals who wished not to proceed with criminal prosecution,” the sheriff said. “However, calls for service are up by 8,534, and summons are up by 66.
“Most of the call for services were for mental self-esteem, property crimes, and domestic violence,” McLaughlin continued, pointing to those areas of trend increases in the community when it came to crimes and calls. “March 2021, January 2021, November 2020, and May 2020) have been months that we’ve seen with the highest levels, with each having more than 4,700 calls per month.”
But all is not bad news for the sheriff’s office. After McLaughlin referenced how his office have been working under the guidelines, he credits the community for contributing more in making their job easier.
“This is the type of community partnership in New Kent we love, but it has greatly increased because communities are pulling together,” the sheriff said proudly on the phone. “Neighbors looked after each other to make sure they had access to medical facility, personal protective equipment, masks, and even transportation to and from vaccination clinics.
“The county has truly pulled together in this pandemic,” McLaughlin added as he began to wrap up his interview. “Even those who disagreed with the statements made by the government still pulled together to ensure the safety of our community.”
Leslie Comer- Major, Charles City County Sheriff’s Office
Last year, Charles City Sheriff’s Office Major Leslie Comer spoke about the altering of operations and the increase of calls in the early stages of the pandemic. In Monday afternoon’s interview, he reflected on the early steps that took place that made it easier for his department to adjust to the outbreak.
“We had implemented cross-training and it has been good, especially when we had absences,” he commented, referencing how some employees were quarantined at certain times. “We are still handling a lot of domestic calls, larcenies, and driving infractions in the field and we are trying to get those calls down and squared away.
“While we started working at a distance by protecting ourselves to make sure we protected the community, we knew we couldn’t stay like that,” he continued. “Other than space, we were able to go out and handle operations.”
Among the things that Comer added was the increase of community involvement that the sheriff’s office was getting involved in.
“We have been doing a lot of parades in the community as a whole,” Comer said. “We are assisting the food pantry distribution that went from 50 to 100 people over a brief time and assisting with vaccination sites.
“I want to thank County Administrator Michelle Johnson for helping our department get all the stuff we needed to protect the staff so that our officers can stay safe and that others can stay safe,” he concluded.
Cullen Jenkins- Owner, Cul’s Courthouse Grille
One of the areas impacted the most by the coronavirus in the opening days were restaurants. And while Cul’s Courthouse Grille owner Cullen Jenkins had already limited the number of seats to eat internally, he admits that he is proud of the support provided to him by the community.
“We understand how fortunate we are to be surrounded by the people in this community,” he said during a Friday afternoon interview. “We see stories about our sorority and fraternities of small businesses who did not survive this and how it’s affected them.
“That could have been us,” Jenkins continued. “While safety was number one, I knew we were going to be able to do enough business to survive. I wanted to make sure we were making others feel safe and that our employees were taken care of.”
Jenkins added that they are continuing to do the small things to make sure their restaurant feels life a safe-haven for those who visit.
“We do a lot of routine things and clean more, offer hand sanitizer, and just tell many people how much we appreciate them,” he added. “The bike trail was a blessing as people stopped by and pick up meals.
“This is a small ‘Ma and Pa’ place where we started from scratch and knew it could be over like that,” Jenkins said as he wrapped up his conversation. “Having family be a part of this no matter what and be supportive, I knew we had each other and we would get through it.”
John Spiak- Athletic Director, New Kent High School
New Kent High School was on the verge of kicking off Spring sports when they saw neighboring jurisdiction James City County Public Schools closed down. He knew that sports would be placed on the backburner and also knew that would be a highlighted area once schools reopened.
“It was a waiting game for the most part and the anxiety was building up from coaches,” the athletic director said in a Friday afternoon interview. “There were multiple schedules, we were adapting to the 60-percent schedule that teams could play, and as a district, we were trying to figure it out how to put it all together.”
New Kent has experienced the impact of COVID-19, with several winter competition sports cancelled due to following contact tracing protocols and quarantining.
“It was almost like a rain date and unfortunately, sometimes a game is taken away,” Spiak continued. “We have to remember that we have to keep the kids safety in mind. If we lost a game, we lost a game.”
But so far, just the student-athletes being on the field has been a winning situation for the New Kent school division as a whole.
“I haven’t heard any complaints from the community and most are happy that the athletes get to play,” he said as he wrapped up the interview. “I’m a little disappointed that we can’t have more fans, but most of them understand and are happy they can watch it streaming on social media. I’m taking this as a positive and hope to get back to ‘normal’ soon.”
Keenan Stewart- Senior, Charles City High School
Last year, former Charles City Senior Aysia Wallace talked about handling the transition as a student. And while Wallace has left to her college endeavors, a current Charles City senior, Keenan Stewart, talked about how the closure impacted his Spring athletic season last year.
“I was upset because it was the first year of us having a baseball team after many seasons,” he said in a Tuesday afternoon interview. “I was excited and ready to excel because our team was getting better. But when we heard the season had ended, it was heartbreaking because I knew how hard we had worked to get the program back.”
As far as the educational portion, Stewart commented that the virtual learning environment was something he was comfortable with because he had already been taking classes online but understood how others may have had difficulty.
“I know that virtual learning isn’t for everybody,” he said. “But I’ve been back in the school as well and from what I’ve seen, the students have been doing a good job with the rules and social distancing to stay safe.
“I don’t think the school system gets enough credit for what they are doing to keep us safe,” Stewart added as he wrapped up his comments. “They are doing temperature checks, keeping desks separated, and the teachers are taking the extra effort to make sure that the students don’t fall back behind their studies so that they can excel and do well in their classes.”